Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #27: To the End of the March

Qinethi Rhin wouldn't meet Valin's eye, but standing next to her Inventrix, the Rider's gaze would flicker up momentarily, rest on the X on his cheek, and then quickly lower again. Especially, if she thought he was looking. The numbness of his cheek matched the numbness that was spreading inside, that faintly hollow sense that sat in his chest.

Shiran's small fingers had already placed the thread deftly on the needle. And as he sat on the camp chair in her tent, her eye on level with his, she worked to spread the numbing salve on his face. All he wanted to do was sleep. For eternity. Just...sleep away everything.

She reached for the cut on his cheek, but he brought up his bleeding hand and waved her from her work. She studied him, frowning. "Let me stitch it, Valin."

"I don't want it to heal," he said, voice vacant.

"It will heal," she said softly. "As all things do. It simply won't heal as well."

He gave her a wry smirk. "Such wisdom, Inventrix. But let it be. I want the reminder of what I did to be ugly."

Rhin fidgeted on her feet, her soft leather boots scuffing at the dirt. "There are some of us who, I won't speak in generalities to protect my standing. I think that questioning our Inventrix is—"

"A blood-shame?" he sneered. "I'd do it again if given the choice. The hellsfire she would've unleashed, still might unleash, is wrong. And she couldn't see that. She's blind. Just as you are. All of you, never questioning, just believing what it is in your blood to do—"

"You didn't let me finish." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Perhaps it's in your blood to interrupt, but I'll have you know, Seven, that not all of us think that destroying the innocents of the Wheelteeth is right or just. I've been told by some that I'm young and naïve, that if I'd fought at all as long and hard as the old Riders, I'd think differently. That I'd cheer their fiery end." She frowned. "Some of the Firsts of the other Regiments dared to question my loyalties...but, I wish that I'd had the strength to confront her as you did."

He regarded her, his mind threatening to do more than sit idly in numbness. "You're aware, First Leader, that I did more than trade words with her?"

The young Rider dropped her gaze, her lips pressed together in a thin line.

He rose to his feet, and strode toward her, this young girl who might die on the field for the coming battle. "I held the dagger over her heart and I tried to end her life. Would you have done the same, Rider?"

She remained silent. Unmoving. After long breaths of time, she whispered, "No."

"And yet, how many Wheelteeth scouts have you taken down with your arrows?" Gods, she was so young, though he could tell not completely naïve or innocent. "How many did you watch crash? How many did you kill?"

She met his gaze with a defiant glare. "I've lost count, Navigator Valin."

He could tell now that Rhin was weary, and by the haunted gleam in her eye, perhaps had been scarred already. Perhaps her own shadowfall. Through the numbness stirred the faintest sense of guilt, and he stepped away from her, automatically giving her the Navigator signs for apologies, fault is mine.

"I'm sorry, Rhin," he said, and backed away to plop heavily down on the camp chair. 

She flexed her shoulders in a way that suggested she was used to doing so on horseback to check that her cam-and-pulley bow was still in its holster across her back; the movement made him aware of how deadly she truly was, despite her age and lack of experience. He counted the arrows in the quiver at her hip—around thirty—and he wondered how many of them were small firebomb tips.

She met his eye, and jutted her chin in the direction of his cheek. "A Rider, or a Nav, does what they think best for the safety of the Clan. In that moment, you fought for more than safety. You fought for the soul of our Clan. Know that there's one who won't look away from you in shame for that mark."

His throat tightened, and he couldn't even croak out a response.

Shiran smiled proudly up at the Rider, showing very adult crinkles at the corners of her eye.

Rhin continued, scuffing at the dirt again, "Even if I don't agree on how you tried to do so."

"Nor I," said Shiran, still holding the needle and thread. "But you convinced her of your lie, Valin, which was the true goal. And now she's set a day and time, so you must hurry to Kirwen to offer her the same. I fear, however, that Kirwen may be the hardest to convince."

Valin shook his head, noting the stinging in his cheek as a reminder. "It seems, young Inventrix, that you know Kirwen less than you do Mirena. If I tell her of the firebomb, she will do whatever is necessary to save her people. She threatened to kill two of my squad in front of me if I didn't become—" and he gesture wryly at the traitor's mark, "—in order to give her information on our position and numbers. And I took her bargain to save them. As she will take the offer of a duel to do the same for her people."

Rhin studied him with an intensity he didn't expect to see. "You expected to die in that tent. Didn't you?"

"I did, Rider."

"So, you were willing to sacrifice your squad in order to stop our Inventrix."

Valin didn't hear condemnation in her voice, and he thanked the Forge Gods he hadn't, or he feared he would crumble into a hollow wreck, no more than a shell.

He wanted to stand, to pace from beneath the scrutiny of these two who seemed so young, but were anything but. Shiran placed a hand on his arm, still holding the needle before him as if showing him he still had a choice.

"There's one thing I've learned being prisoner among the Wheelteeth," he said. "It's that squadron is beyond blood. They're my family. And my family. My greatest friend. And I left him there...I left them all there. And Kirwen would've..." He inhaled to steady himself, but he hadn't the voice to continue.

Rhin remained silent, and Shiran squeezed his arm.

"I risked everything." He stared down at his stitched and bandaged hand, remembering the feel of the dagger in his fingers. "And failed. I almost killed them. To save..." The children of the enemy. The Elders. The sick and helpless.

Shiran's little girl voice made him look down into her childish face. "You're alive, Valin. And I must believe that your squadron is as well. There's still hope, my boy. Hope for life. Hope for the end of this conflict. A hope which I know you haven't lost, not completely. There's still fight and honor within you yet."

"Fight? Yes. But honor?"

She made a very Elder-like harrumph noise. "Honor is more than doing as your blood has done for centuries. And you've learned this, Valin. I know you have."

He rubbed at his forehead, the headache starting behind his eyes.

"Let me stitch it, Navigator," said Shiran. Her brow raised in that wry amusement he recognized from Kirwen, but without the bitterness. "Besides, your looks won't get any better even if I do stitch it. It depends on how you wear it—with pride or with shame. I hear tell from the other Navs your First Leader Nyru has scars of her own. Tell me, does she wear them well?"

His slight smile hurt. The Navs had a saying even for scars: Wear them well. "She does. She says it makes her mysterious as much as it makes her serious. Truth be told, I can never tell whether she's amused or irritated. Usually, it's both."

Rhin chuckled, sounding her true age. "I see why you claim her as one of your own blood."

Shiran still held the needle.

Slowly, Valin nodded to the young Inventrix, and her small, deft hands began to thread the needle through his flesh. He closed his eyes, and heard her humming to herself. Not a song he recognized. Perhaps part of her Inventrix's blood knowledge. Rhin began to hum along with her. When Shiran paused in her work, he asked, "What are you singing?"

"It's a song I heard a Rider sing once. Rhin's voice is very beautiful." 

He opened his eye to see Rhin cringing in mild embarrassment. She gestured in what he assumed was Rider-sign, similar enough to Nav signals that he caught the meaning—to the end of the flight. No, not flight.

"Scouts don't sing," the young Rider said. "It's ingrained in us. To be silent. But when we leave scout duty and join part of a march, we sing To the End of the March."

She sang, and Valin noticed she did indeed have a beautiful voice:

The march is over
To the ends we ride
Back to our brothers and sisters
To our mothers and fathers
To mates and children
Or to the grasslands of forever
To the ashes beneath the soil
As the bones on the field  
The march is over
To home we ride

He clenched his wounded hand, feeling it again as more than the one that held the dagger. Slowly, he smiled, stretching the new stitches in his cheek. To home. To his people, not a place. A family.

Just as Shiran clipped the last of the thread, he stood.

He would return to his family. They were home. His true, very small Clan.


Kirwen had allowed Zefir to spend some time with his squad before they were to move out, and when he approached the entrance of their all too familiar prison, Renzu was the sole guard. The man gave him a solemn nod of respect before opening the door.

When he entered the prison, his First, Second, and Third stared at him like one returned from the sundisk, while Innari pranced uncertainly on her feet. He watched them, almost disbelieving that he was here again with them. Jarre asked how he was, his Third's eyes searching his for shadowfall, and Zefir answered by bumping his nose against Jarre's chest. Nyru asked if he knew of Valin, and he hesitated to tell her what Valin had chosen: the squad's life for betrayal of their Clan. But he'd promised her he wouldn't hide or lie to his First, so with a nod, he told all he knew of Valin's bargain.

His squadron lasped into silence. Jarre squeezed his eyes shut and pinched them with his large fingers, while Ferrei chewed on her lip, and Nyru stared ahead with her fierce grimace.

Finally, Nyru spoke, "Our wing runner did what he thought best. For us."

The Quarethstras nodded solemnly.

With a great, weary sigh, Zefir said, "But that's not all. There's no more time."

Either I go to fight our own Clan tomorrow, or I save my squad.

Innari practically launched herself at him, keening softly, her words so fast he could barely understand anything but "Zefir-sibling, I'm sorry. So, so, sorry. Please don't hate me."

Baffled, he shook his head. "Why would I ever hate you?"

She backed away from him, curled in on herself and shivered. Innari gasped, "I can't do it! I can't open the lock! And now I won't be able keep you safe, or Ferrei-kin, or look after all the others like I promised Valin-friend."

It wrenched at Zefir's heart-mind to know that he'd caused his sibling so much distress and hurt. It was her first instance of it, and he remembered his confusion at the cold sensation all too well. And the baffling tears, which—

He watched as clear liquid cascaded down her sleek nose, and she shook her head. "I'm leaking, and I don't know why. It's not an injury. What's happening?"

"You're crying, little moon dragon," said Jarre softly.

"But what does it mean? Am I broken?" She shook again, tightening her long wings against her back.   

Zefir approached her, and gently placed one of his wings around her smaller frame. Though the bomb was inside him, he knew soon it would be his only hope to help them. For now, his wing contracted, feeling like they were throbbing painfully, and he pressed her closer. This is the last time I'll get to do this. And look, I've made her afraid and sad. Then the thought made his own eyes water: We'll never get to fly side by side.

"You're not stupid. It means you're sad," said Zefir, noticing that her shudders were slowly subsiding. "And sad people—or dragons like us—cry."

"I'm not sad," she said resolutely. "I'm angry. So angry. The second mechanism that I thought needed to be coded open at the same time is false. It's there for no reason for it other than to vex me. That means it's wrong, my work, all wrong. I have to start again and I can't finish—" she sniffled, shaking her head to flick the tear from her snout, "in time. So you see, I'm not sad."

"You can be angry and sad at the same time." Zefir tightened his wing, and he used the tip of his tail, foil-sails and all, to flick a lightly stinging slap against her flank. "Don't concern yourself with it, Innari. You tried. And sometimes we fail."

She pushed at him, and nipped at his side hard enough to pinch, but not to break the skin. "I'll try again. I have to."

"There's..." he hesitated. "Innari, you don't need to."

"No!" she cried, ears flat against her head. "You'll see, Zefir-sibling, I'll try again." She swiveled her ears toward Ferrei. "Will you still sit next to me?"

"In a moment, little flyer." His Second made the always at your side sign.

Ferrei shared a look with Nyru, who shook her head, his First's eyes bright as if with feverish thought. But it appeared that whatever Nyru disapproved of with that shake of her head, that Ferrei was determined to ignore it. When Innari raised herself to the lock, muttering to herself, lost in her task, Ferrei came to him and crossed her arms over her chest.

"You can't do this, Zefir," said Ferrei, eyes sharp. "And don't feign ignorance." Her voice dropped to a whisper, though if Innari weren't otherwise engaged his sibling could've heard perfectly. "You plan to rip yourself open, dragon. You would not honor us by doing so."

Valin's same words.

"Ten hells and sun bedamned," he cursed. "I don't care about blood honor. All that matters to me is that you live."

"But at what cost, Zefir?" she croaked.

It had been a while since Zefir had listened closely to his squadron's hearts, and he realized in more than one way. He had desperately blocked out the scent of them, but now he realized just how much of their scent was tinged with the fear-stink, their hearts thudding in an alternating pattern of dread and the concentrated effort to find a calm center. 

He thought he heard Seren's voice, but it was no more than a tickle of a thought. The heart speaks in more than words, dear dragon.

Nyru was watching him with an intense, almost feverish gaze, which turned inward in furious thought before focusing on him once more. Jarre was frowning in a very un-Jarre like manner, his brows creased and careworn, eyes haunted with both his present and—Zefir wondered—perhaps his past. Ferrei still stood with her shoulders back, chin raised, looking cool and certain, but he could hear by her breathing that appearing collected was the only thing holding his brave Second together.

"I can't let you do this," said Ferrei quietly. "And not just because of my vow, Zefir."

He took a step forward—gods, how little they all looked, these fragile fleshed humans. And he pressed the expanse of his nose into Ferrei's chest, inhaling the scent-profile he'd come to know as uniquely hers. Somehow he always thought of her scent like warm iron, like the taste of lightning in the air before the storm. He closed his eyes to memorize it more fully, scenting not just her fear, but recollecting other scents: her anger had been the smell of the sun baking the granite mountainside, her joy was the smell of flight—for flying had its own scents—the engine of the thopters, the air coming off the rivers, the clouds themselves.

When he opened his eyes, her hands were in the air, uncertain if she should touch him, like someone awkwardly considering whether or not they should return an unexpected embrace. He blinked once, slow, unwilling to break the sight of her when Ferrei finally smoothed her hand over his nose.    

"You can't do this," she said, "because you're squad. You're kin. My blood. You must let us go. Fly away from here. Survive. Fight another day."

He inhaled slowly again, scenting her certainty, hearing the low, steady cadence of her heart, the same cadence when she'd reached a final decision.

"That's," Zefir rumbled, "exactly why you must let me do this for you."

She shook her head with that wry grimace. "And you say you care not for blood honor, when you honor us all by saying such a thing." Ferrei focused on his nose again, his breath warming her hand. "But you can't—"

"He's made his decision." Nyru's voice came with unexpected softness, and Zefir wondered if that's the voice her bloodson knew when she took Denaru on his first flight. "And we can't dishonor such an offer."

"First Leader," Ferrei said sharply, "you can't be serious. You must order him. He'll listen to his First. Order him, Nyru, damn you."

Nyru's mouth quirked into a tight-lipped grimace. "This isn't something I can order or order against, and you know it, Second Leader."

Ferrei trembled, looking away. "You're allowing this? Why?"

Nyru's eyes were bright with grave certainty. "I'm not allowing anything. I can't stop him. He's made his decision. Ordering him not to do this for his squad...would only give him guilt in the end. And I won't do that. No one should feel guilt for such a deed. Therefore, we must accept his offer gracefully, my Second."

Ferrei turned her back on them all. Jarre rose from the cot, but he marched toward his blood-cousin and set a massive hand on her shoulder. "Ferrei, he's made the Offer of Life. You see that, don't you?"

"I won't accept it." She bit fiercely at her lower lip, and shrugged off his hand. "Fight on my side, damn you."

"Cousin," he said with his quiet basso rumble. "There's nothing to fight. Not this time. The Offer of Life has been made." He tried his best to smile, but it never made it to his face. "And with a great deal less praying and mumbling incantations."

Zefir snorted, stifling a sad laugh.

Jarre moved toward Zefir. "Sun-and-stars, dragon, why'd you have to go and make me like you?"

Zefir lifted his snout and licked his Third right across his face. Jarre let out a surprised grunt, and gave him a mock frown. "You know, maybe I should proclaim you reigning champion of cards." His smile disappeared as if it were too heavy to maintain. "Hells, Zefir, I always told you that you lead too strong and you should save your best cards for last."

"All my cards are gone but one," Zefir said. "And I'll use it to keep the game going. First flight, last flight, squad brother."

"First flight..." Jarre said, "last...oh, hells. I don't want to accept the offer either, Zefir."

"Then make me a promise." Zefir somehow felt lighter. Like he could fly free in this dismal place. He flexed his wings half-believing there was wind beneath them. "Take care of Innari. She needs you as much as I did."

"I swear—"

"No vows," Zefir insisted. "Just...a promise."

"A promise then. The little moon dragon is in good hands."

That he knew to be true. 

Nyru came to stand before him, and Zefir gave her his best dragon-imitation of a human bow. The scarred half of her face formed the smile perfectly for the first time he'd ever seen, knowing that it must take a painful effort to do so. "You remind me so much of Denaru. Good bleeding sun, you're just a boy."

For the first time he touched his implacable First, bumping his nose against her shoulder in a playful manner. "Not any longer."

She nodded, bowed to him, and motioned: We are the shield.

Zefir began to back away, back toward the corner of the room. He didn't want them to see his face when he...wrenched open his panel, or the pain that it caused.


She quivered, her long tail limp on the ground, tears rolling down her snout. He knew she still didn't understand, not fully. She took a step toward him, her massive wings folded tight against her and bounded toward him. For a minute he wondered if he would have to defend himself against her, but she slid to a stop and butted her head beneath his chin.

"They say you're flying away," she cried. "A last flight. I don't know what that means, but take me with you. I'll show you that I can fly faster. I'm sorry, sorry, sorry that I couldn't break the lock. It's my fault."

It hadn't been fair to ask it of her. What a wretched way to leave her.

"If you remember one thing I say, Innari-sibling, then remember this: it's not your fault. I shouldn't have asked it of you. That was unfair." He licked her cheek, tasting that even her tears were similar-yet-different from his. When he'd dried them off well as he could, he nipped at her and she made an attempt at a laugh. "You must do me a favor though. Will you do that for me?"


"When the hangar door opens, you must take the squad and fly away with them. Fly as far as you can and as fast. The gryphons you saw will try to chase you, but—"

"Those?" she scoffed. "I can outfly them. They're slow."

He felt his dragon grin stretch. It'd been a long time since he truly grinned. "Yes, but they have clamps and will try to catch you. They caught me."

"Because you're slow." She butted him again, and she reached for his hands, her claws digging into his skin to leave puncture marks. "You're going to give us the bomb to open the door, aren't you?" It wasn't quite a question. "Even though you'll hurt yourself."

"My squad is worth it."

"If they're your kin, and Valin-friend's kin, and Ferrei is my kin, then we're all family. Aren't we?"

Good gods, either the sun, or the Five Healers, or the Gods of the Forge, it didn't matter. How innocent she was. Let her stay that way, gods, if you're real or care.

The answer didn't come from the gods, but from Ferrei. "Yes, little flyer. Come away from your sibling now. Come and stay at our side. You can help me repair the device without all the'll make this all easier." Then to herself, "It will."

Innari gave his cheek a gentle nip and bounded to Ferrei, curling her tail around the whole squad. Ferrei gently nudged his sibling so she was facing away from him, so she wouldn't see. His Second held Innari's large dragon face in her hands, her fingers running softly over Innari's eyelids so his sibling would close her eyes.

Zefir signed to them: Shield her as your own.

Each of his squad nodded, signing back: We are the shield.

He half turned from them, hearing that someone—or someones were drawing near. Not Kirwen. He knew he would sense her if she were to approach. Perhaps the change of their guards. He would need to be quick. He used his claws to find the all too smooth edge—unseen from the outside but he could feel it—of his chest panel, and he dug inward. The pain was sharp, but somehow distant. Parts of him became numb; he curled his hands and with a sharp jerk, wrenched it open.

His entire body went limp; it was no longer under his control, and he fell with a thud to the stone floor, staring at his squad. He could still see, his eyes were locked open. He expected darkness to take him, but this was far worse...he was locked inside, unable to move.

Innari let out a howling roar in pained disbelief.

Nyru raced forward and reached into his chest, taking out the firebomb. The doors rattled. Voices rose in a series of shouts, some of the words clear.

"Damn you, Zareth, get back! All of you go back to your family dwellings." Their guard, Renzu. "This isn't what you want. And I can't let you do this—"

"Shut up, Renzu," snarled the boy. Zareth. "Or we'll name you as a traitor too. Move aside and open up the door."

"Stand back," snarled Renzu. "Wait until Leader Kirwen hears of this."

"She's a traitor too. The biggest one of them all. She admitted she's one of them." Zefir heard cries of agreement—three, four people? More? A small crowd?

"To the hells with you, boy," snarled Renzu. Angry shouts from the crowd. "I know all of you. Go back to your dwellings, remain with your loved ones, and ask for peace from your chosen deities. The anger will pass if you—"  

"I will shoot you, Renzu." Zareth's voice lifted in concentrated fury. "Get out of the way, you stupid fool. The Cog scum will die whether you stand in the way or not. And after we're done with them, we'll take down the worst traitor among us."

"I can't let you kill them." Uttered with a calm Zefir recognized from his own squad. "You know nothing of duty, boy. Or honor and loyalty."

Nyru held the bomb out before her, an eerie calm certainty in her eyes, resolute. She motioned to Innari, who bounded to her side. "Lift me up to the hangar door, little dragon."

Innari picked Nyru up into her hands and lifted her; his First stuck her feet into the large gears, wedging them in, and held on to the large brass door handle. "Now take the others and shield them in the corner."

"No!" Jarre shouted at her. "First Leader, you can't..."

The bomb device was never finished, it's timing mechanism broken. Zefir had thought there would be time enough to repair it...but Nyru had known. Had made her own decision. There was only one way to set it off.

He shrieked in the cavern of his heart-mind, even if his body couldn't—no breath even, not blinking.

Ferrei grabbed Jarre with both hands as he surged forward, the corded muscles on his neck straining as he begged his First Leader. Ferrei's eyes were vacant, but she pulled her big blood-cousin back into the corner. Innari's wings unfurled in their strange quadruple-part fold to their utmost length, and she curled them around Jarre and Ferrei, closing her eyes as she shielded them with her brass bulk.

A single aeropistol shot rang in the cavern outside, and the small door swung open. Zareth entered with his pistol withdrawn, his fevered eyes glancing about the room for his chosen victims. A dozen others, men and women in mourning white entered with aerorifles at the ready.

Zareth looked up at Nyru hanging upside-down, and gasped in surprise; the others of his group swung the barrels of their weapons and aimed at Innari.

Nyru only gave him her terrifying grin-frown before she tore the housing apart in her hand, combining the three deadly chemicals.

Zefir wanted to close his eyes. But the resulting explosion etched itself in his unblinking sight—the cloud of debris, part stone, part blood. The way the crowd of men and women screamed, running out of the door, desperate to take cover. Zareth was on the ground, debris covering him. Dead? But he moved, blood pouring from his scalp; it turned his face into a bloody mask.

Dust covered his sibling's pristine shiny hide, and pinpricks of her red-black blood dotted her back. As she shuddered, he heard Ferrei cry, "Innari! We have to fly, and fly now!"

Dazed, she uncurled from around them, blinking in shock.

Ferrei made the signs for upslide flight, ascend, and his sibling understood. She lowered herself so Ferrei could climb to her back, and Jarre stood, eyes blank. Quickly, Ferrei made the furious signs for obey your order, screaming, "Get on the dragon, damn you!"

Jarre raced over to Zareth's fallen body—was there blood on Jarre's face?—and plucked up the boy's aeropistol, before he ran back, and in one bounding leap landed on Innari's back. His sibling tensed to spring when a flechette bolts pinged against the remnants of the hangar door.

Go, Innari! Hurry! he urged her desperately in his mind.

Innari craned her neck toward him as if she'd heard; Zefir was astonished to hear her thought-voice in his chest, stronger even than Kirwen's voice. I go!

She released the sound of her roar—an ear-splitting high-pitched shriek that sounded like it would carve his head into splinters. She leapt through the hole with a desperate bound.

And was gone.  
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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #26: The Judge's Regalia

The morning air was crisp against Zefir's hide, and he glided with a speed that made him focused. Kirwen was better at not giving him instructions by ordering him through their virul connection, and instead he turned on a wing and plunged downward, slipping through an opening two wing runners had made in their line. Kirwen indicated the angle of descent through his panel—which he could feel in a way he'd never been able to describe other than an instinct, or an itch. Zefir leveled off, and angled toward two gryphons flying too close, their clamp-legs out to capture him.

Too narrow, came her thought-voice.

But Zefir knew he could teach them yet another lesson on flying, these Navs who were mere volunteers with little experience. He had never tried a move so desperate as he attempted now, so he angled toward them, as if ready to fly down their gullet. Were they in battle with real flechette rifles or pistols, such a move would've been suicidal, but—

I've seen squad members sacrifice themselves like this in the air, when all seems lost.

Close now, Kirwen hesitated before venting the heat from his systems and redirecting a greater amount of air to his wings, timing them with each upstroke. Closer. The two gryphons flew closer to one another, hoping to force him to fly around them. As he'd taught them. But they weren't close enough to their formation. And their fellow wing runners didn't move with them. They were a lone mirror of one another, cast off from the others—ripe to pick off.

Move to position, Kirwen sent through his panel.

These two must learn their mistake, or they'll die in the air when real battle comes, he thought back to her.

Zefir was almost close enough to collide with them so he tucked his wings to his side, making his profile no more than a slender flechette spearing perfectly between them; one tried to clamp on to him, but he was too fast. And he was beyond them, spreading his wings once more to arc around to look at them.

They had tried to converge on him, and he watched as the downbeat of one gryphon's brass feathered wing collided with the upstroke of the other. Zefir couldn't gasp, not in the air, but he made a sound of surprise as the left gryph's wing snapped from its body, and began to spiral downward; the right gryph tottered and began to fall in the opposite direction.

Without hesitation, Zefir plunged downward after the left gryphon, and he could hear its Navigator scream—the way I heard Denaru scream before his bomber dragon crashed. Kirwen sent him information on the status and position of the right gryphon, also falling, but its intact wings were arresting its fall slightly.

Go for the one without a broken wing, you can catch her, Kirwen said, the battle rush quivering along her body.

I can catch both, he said, determined.

He expected her to argue, to order him, but she kept giving him a stream of information on both gryphon's falling positions as Zefir speared down toward the one with a broken wing; he flapped faster, harder, feeling the deadly pull down, down, the ache of it inside of him, the gleeful need to fall.

One hundred meters, she sent.

If he wasn't careful, the spinning gryphon might clip him and he too would crash; he tucked his wings tight against him, and pulled his body into a spin to match. Close now, he reached out with a hand, stretching his muscles to the utmost; there, he caught a claw on the Navigator's flight harness and pulled upward. The screaming Nav came with him, and he held on to the harness as he broke his downward fall, every muscle screaming against the pressure.

He flapped desperately, seeing the other gryphon still trying to regain stability. Gripping on to the Nav in his hand with desperate might, he cradled the Nav against his belly as his wings carved deeper gouges out of the air, straining to meet with the other gryphon. Close now—

Two hundred meters, came Kirwen's voice.

He tried to match the awkward spin of the gryph; the beak of the thing clipped Zefir's jaw, and he grunted, glad that his mind was in his chest and not his head. The Navigator was still trying to even out, so with his free hand he flashed the Nav the Wheelteeth sign for abandon and then what he hoped was jump.

The Nav looked up at him, unhooking the harness. And then standing in the flight seat—leaped.

His claw caught at the harness, and he instantly pressed the Nav's body against his chest as he evened out his descent. His veins pumped the cooling serum through him at the perfect rate. Exhausted now, he simply hovered for a moment before he began to gently glide down toward the ground.

Kirwen's battle-rush was a tight sensation against his heart-mind, that heady mix of fear and instinct and automatic reaction. But it began to cool with the long practice of one used to dealing with such emotion over the last two hundred years.

He reached the ground, hovering until his back feet touched the soft grasses, and he set each of the Navs down first.

Both tore off their flight masks. And he saw one of them—a young woman of no more than ten-and-seven—lean over to retch all over the ground. The Nav who'd screamed. The other took his skull-shaped flight mask off, and Zefir recognized him as one of the squad's silent guards, a man taller than Jarre and expression terminally stoic. Ah, the one he'd once threatened to roast for daring to touch him.

The man looked up at his Leader, and bowed to her gracefully. "Thank you, Leader, for saving my life. And that of my squadmate's."

Kirwen slid from Zefir's back and stood, one hand on Zefir's shoulder, unlatching the wolf mask. "The one you must thank, Renzu, is the dragon. Zefir saved your lives."

Zefir danced uncomfortably on his feet. Was it well to feel pride in saving the life of an enemy? An enemy that would fly again only to strike at Zefir's own Navigators? He grimaced, and snorted some of the overly warm feeling from his chest. "Don't thank me, Navigator Renzu. Save your thanks for whatever deity you pray to while flying. Just promise me that you won't attempt that maneuver again without at least four more of your wing backing you."

The man studied him, much the same way Nyru would study a new Navigator in her squad. "What you did to counter it never would've worked in battle."

"Don't underestimate the blood-fury of my Clan's Navigators," Zefir said, leaning closer to the man. "Or their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the safety of their squadron."

The man grimaced. "I will remember that, Dragon Zefir."

Renzu helped his squadmate gather herself, and they made their way toward the mountain's entrance, only for Zefir to see a small crowd—dressed in mourning white with a red piece of cloth on their forearm—come toward them in hurried steps. No, as he sniffled at the air, he could smell the stormy-cloud scent of their anger. They were in a march of fury.

Renzu paused with his squadmate, and left her to come stand by Kirwen's side, crossing his considerable arms across his equally considerable chest.

At the head of the group was Zareth. Zefir took the name from the forefront of Kirwen's mind, but he recognized the wretch who'd shot at Valin. Carefully, Zefir held back on a growl, but adjusted his stance to be at the ready.

Kirwen regarded the crowd with a cold look, though he knew she was stifling her irritation. "Go back to your dwellings, children. Unless you're volunteering for Navigator training, you're wasting my time."

"Leader Kirwen," said Zareth, his eyes flashing. "We're here to demand justice. You've let these Cog scum live in our home for far too long. They're poisoning the very air we breathe. Furthermore—" and Zefir rather thought the irritating boy was trying to sound like a Leader himself, "—the Cog scum chained to the Exile Post has escaped. How many more of their kind will you allow to live?"

Kirwen's hands curled into fists before she relaxed them. "Take your grievances to the Council of Elders. If they call for judgment of our prisoners, then so be it. But in the meantime, I've squadrons to train for the coming battle."

"The Elders do as you say, because they're old and foolish," the young man snapped, taking a step forward. "You tell them what to say. They've no volition."

Zefir let out a rumble of warning, and he could feel his lips curling away to bare his teeth. No one is going to do anything with my squad.

They won't. Kirwen kept one hand on his shoulder, and patted it in reassurance before she spoke to the Lyth boy, "The Council is wise and listens to reason. I'm not their ruler. We're equals. If they've already denied you, which it's clear they have, then I could always use more volunteers. Vent your fury on the battlefield. But not here."

Zareth pointed at her, taking another step forward. "You're one of them. You've already admitted it to us. Who's to say that you're not working with them? Show us, Leader. Show us you're with us by killing the vile scum in our midst."

Kirwen marched forward, and Zefir a took a step forward to stay at her side. Her voice lowered into a dangerous growl, "I've been fighting this war before your grandmere's grandmere was even born, you little shit. And if I'm one of them, so are you, my Lyth." Her eyes flickered over the crowd, and some of its members flinched. "So are all of you. Did you think I was lying when I said that the Cog Clan and the Wheelteeth share blood? Some of these so-called scum in our midst are direct descendants of our own people. And when this war is over, we must learn to accept them as our own Clan—"

Zareth spat in her face.

With trembling fingers, Kirwen wiped the spittle from her cheek. Zefir could feel the fury burn along his insides, a fury not purely his own.

"You lie!" Zareth barked. "And we're sick of your lies. You're a godsdamned traitor—"

Kirwen backhanded the Lyth boy across his face. Blood spilled out of Zareth's mouth and he spat it out on the ground.

"You, boy, don't get to judge me. You have no fucking idea what I've sacrificed for this Clan. For you. For centuries." She straightened, and placed her hand on Zefir's shoulder, more for physical support. "Get out of my sight before I lose my temper and am tempted strike you again, you idiotic child. If you dare call me a traitor again, I'll lock you in the deepest cell until your Elders decide to let you out."  

Zareth spat out more blood, his face creased in hatred. "I see how our great Wolf Leader chooses to protect. Now, so does everyone else."

Kirwen's hand quivered on Zefir's shoulder, and their virul-connection strengthened—her fury making Zefir's hands clench in time with her own. Zefir growled, "Go home."

Perhaps those were her words as much as his.

"As for the rest of you," Kirwen said, "if you're not joining in the fight to lend your strength here, then go and assist where you can. Take your anger and put it to good use."

Slowly, the crowd turned and headed back toward the mountain, Zareth holding his jaw, before turning to follow.

Kirwen was shaking, but from anger or surprise at her own actions, Zefir couldn't tell. She peered at her gloved hand, and curled it in and out of a fist, closing her eyes.

"Are you well?" Zefir ventured.

"I..." She grimaced. "I struck one of my own. I hurt that damned fool boy. Suffice to say if I've unleashed my temper enough to hurt one of mine, then I'm closer to the end than I thought."

"That Zareth boy deserved that." Zefir looked down an saw that he'd left furrows in the soft earth with his claws. "They're dangerous, Kirwen. You should lock them all up."

She shook her head. "They're afraid. And young. The combination makes them angry and stupid."

Zefir watched them marching away, purpose in every step. "Being angry, stupid, and afraid is a combination for people to do dangerous things. I should know, I've done it enough times myself."

She grunted in agreement. "Renzu, I'd like it if you'd guard the enemy squadron."

"Of course, Leader Kirwen," the Nav said mildly. And with that the guard left to attend to his duty.

Zefir sensed a flash of memory from her, but she quickly wrestled it away from his grasp before he saw more than Mother's face.

"Now I know what Mirena must've felt." Kirwen gathered herself enough to launch in a graceful bound into the Navigator's seat; she promptly directed the rate of ascent on his panel and said, "Back to the air, Zefir. We must prepare to launch out sooner than I expected."

I don't have four days, came her thought-voice. Not even the three I gave your Valin.

He'd agreed to this bargain to give Innari more time to break the code-locks. To save Jarre and Ferrei. Now, he may have to choose a more dangerous option.

Then so be it.

And he launched himself skyward.


True to his word, the coghorse hadn't dropped Valin on the way down; but often it seemed a very near thing, as Daimo capered down, clipping the faintest outcropping with one hoof, only to bound downward again with a grace and speed even a mountain goat couldn't match. It seemed like the horse was dancing down the rockface. At first the lack of seat had made Valin clench his teeth, the fear resting under his sternum. But as they bounded downward, his inner Navigator reveled in the reckless downward plunge, and once he whooped out loud it spurred the amused horse to greater speed.

Daimo reached the bottom, skidding in a controlled slide with another pleased whinny. "I like you, Rider. Let me know if you want to do that again."

He was breathing hard from the exhilaration, and unknotted his knuckles from the coghorse's pseudo-metallic mane. "Another time perhaps, Daimo. For now, I need you to take me to the Inventrix's tent."

"Oh, right. Sorry, Rider." He began to canter in his smooth gait, so with a fistful of silver mane Valin managed to stay atop the coghorse.  

He noticed that no one, even the Rider scouts, moved to stop him. He wondered if those at work knew about the silver coghorse. In the deep canyon, he could see that the bomber dragon looked even more massive, dwarfing those working around it into mere ants. Closer, he could better calculate the size of the firebomb, and how much of each chemical must be within—

He had to force his mind away from the task, bile rising in his throat from simply contemplating such a thing. When the coghorse approached the largest tent at the very back of the canyon, farthest away from the bomber dragon, Navigators materialized from the shadows, pointing their aerorifles at him.

A young wing runner of Jarre's Third Wing widened her eyes. "Seven?"

Another gasped. "The techie?"

Before Valin could respond, the coghorse stamped his large hoof against the rock of the canyon and the sound seemed to echo like a pistol shot. "This is my Rider, Seven Valin, to see the Inventrix. Time is short, Riders of the Sky. Do not delay."

The wing runner grimaced. "Our Inventrix is indisposed—"

"Daimo," said Valin. "Take me into that blood-ridden tent."

The coghorse pranced, snorting at the wing runners until they moved away from his considerable bulk. But the wing runner lifted her rifle a fraction, eyes wide.

"Shoot me, wing runner, and you'll have killed one of your own Clan," he snapped coldly. "The Inventrix will want to hear what I say even if she is damned well indisposed. Stand aside, or I'll tear the tent down around her ears."

"B-But you can't..." the young girl's eyes grew wider.

Daimo, either bored or irritated—Valin wasn't certain which—released a sound more like a dragon roar than any sound a horse might make. The coghorse trotted forward, ducking down into the tent. Within the inner flaps, Daimo knelt, and Valin slid from his back rather ungracefully.

The Inventrix was sitting in a camp chair dressed in a black-on-black uniform he only recognized from his histories: the judge's regalia, worn only when called to judge the worst of the Clan's offenses—murder of their own...and treason. Her eyes focused on him, taking his measure in a half-a-breath, those same dark eyes burrowing into him. She didn't rise, nor did she move; truly, she seemed made of ice, her face carved from the side of a forbidding mountain.

He counted his breaths, forcing them to remain even, for his heartbeat to stop hammering against his insides. He didn't bow, or show obeisance, and he stilled his tongue. The eternity of her stare caused the sweat to begin pouring down his back. But he wouldn't yield. She would speak first.

"You left them there," she said without inflection.

Cut to the heart of his weakness. "I had no choice, Inventrix. If I had failed to follow Kirwen's directions—"

"Never say her name in my presence." Her long fingers tapped at the chair's arm.

Fire started in his belly, and made its way up through his mouth. "Then this conversation will be overly long and complicated if I can't say her godsdamn name."

He expected an arched brow, like Kirwen would, but his Inventrix wasn't one to show such wry displeasure so causally. "That fire. I should've put it out long ago. For clearly, it hasn't done your blood any good."

He took a step forward, and noticed the judge's dagger on her hip. If she had weakened enough, perhaps he could have a chance of using it on her...

The treasonous thought made cold sweat break out over his lip. "It's there, and I know who it comes from, Mirena. I know why you didn't stamp it from my line long ago."

She placed her chin on her fist. If his use of her heart-name surprised her, she gave no sign of it. "Why have you returned then?"  

"To learn the truth," he said, and clasped his hands behind his back. "And to give you truth. Because no one else will."

Now her mouth became a thin slash. "And this truth you bring, did it happen to have been obtained at the cost of your squadron and my little one?"

Did he hear a quiver in her voice when she asked about Zefir?

"They will be the cost if I don't return to Kirwen," he said, forcing his voice to be just as emotionless as hers. "I'm here as her messenger, and if you decide to judge me for treason here, then when I fail to come back with an answer—"

"Her terms then," she said, mouth tight. "Surrender no doubt. But know this, boy, there can be no surrender. Not even for my Zefir, my creation and...and my..."

"Child," he finished. "Or did you forget he calls you Mother?"

She rose from her chair with the eerie inhuman grace of an Inventrix. Such was the blaze in her eye that his muscles tightened as he expected her to strike him. He flinched when she waved away the coghorse, still standing behind him. Daimo hesitated, before Valin nodded to him; with a snort, the coghorse backstepped through the tent flap, and in three strides was gone.

"I haven't forgotten, Valin," she said, voice almost a whisper. "Tell me how he fares."

The anger still boiled inside, but it cooled slightly at hearing her as a mother begging him for news of her child. For Zef. "She hasn't harmed him. Though she is enemy, she has honored her vow to—"

"You broke your parole," she said, narrowing her gaze. "If there's one thing to be said for my mirror it's that she holds to her vows, and she wouldn't threaten their lives if your parole remained intact. But Valin, that's not what I asked. There are a thousand ways to kill a person, and nearly all of them can start with a small cut. So I ask you again: how fares my little one?"

How could he tell her what Zefir had been through? "He's known fear. A great deal of it, but you wouldn't create a battle dragon without the ability to deal with fear, now would you?"

"He reacts to it as would any human, Valin, and you know it." She shuddered, and clenched her fingers into fists. "What fears has he known?"

"The same kind as any human, Inventrix. The fear of losing us. His squadron. Me. Those he loves. And isn't that what we all fear? Isn't that why I'm here now?" He swallowed before he pushed, "Weren't those your fears that were realized after the Trial?"

Her dark eyes flashed. "She can't have decayed that far that she'd tell you such things."

"There were many things my grandmere allowed me to realize on my own. She didn't need to tell me of the many truths that have been hidden from us. By you, Mirena." His eye flickered over the dagger at her hip, and he made himself take a single step away from her to keep the lure of it out of his mind. Strike and kill her. This will all be over. "You've lied to your Clan for so long that your edited lies seem like truth now. We no longer know why we fight them, and we fight now only because the war continues, and the war continues because you say it does, and our hurts increase and increase until it's all we know. The losses. And the hatred grows, and the war continues."

"That's your great truth, boy?" She turned her back on him—if I move fast enough I can grab the dagger—and reseated herself in the chair.

He spied the real reason that she sat, and not the nonchalant, uncaring air that she put forth. The muscles of her foot were twitching.

"She hasn't lied to me," he said slowly. Thinking. Another lesson, another test. And he must unlock her the way he'd decoded the locks on her laboratory door. "Generations ago, you started this war. You sent ground forces and burned the Wheelteeth's crops. You caused their famine during a drought, and then you demanded their children—"

"All the first born of that year, yes." Again her eyes were searching him. Calculating. "And in exchange I gave them enough food to survive that winter. But you're wrong about one thing, sootfoot."

He stiffened. So she still insults my origins. "I fail to see what part of that is untrue. Or should I simply recite the histories from memory? The histories you wrote?"

She grimaced. "Time has a way of altering the truth. After a time, I simply wrote the simple version of events for the school's histories, a version that all could understand and find pride in. For we need pride, Valin, when we've nothing else."

My pride is gone.

"But what you fail to realize is that the famine didn't begin this war. It started with—" she clenched her teeth and said the name as if it were drawn from her by force, "—Kirwen."

He clenched his hands behind him, and his wounded hand throbbed. He squeezed it tighter so the pain would solidify and increase. "Their retaliation is understandable. Justified even. You stole their children. How can you not see the immorality of your actions?"

"Because...the war started far before that." Her face creased in anger the likes of which Valin had never seen her reveal before, contorting her expression into something truly terrifying. "It started when my mirror took half of my Clan away from me. She stole my people. And I swore I would return at least some of them before they warped into the wildlings they are now. So feral. And none of them truly mine any longer."

Valin gasped. "How?"

She dropped her gaze to her own fingertips, which made small jerking movements. "Your very distant grandmere incited the dissolution of our Clan by starting protests. She turned them against me, my people, my children. She stirred violent anger and criminal thoughts in their heads, leading them like the blind and trusting children they were. They demanded that I step down, that the Elders be called to rule in a council at my side. When I rightfully denied them, they tried to kill me." Her breath stilled, eyes distant. "They wanted me to stop Leading them, their Inventrix. Me who was born to rule them, mold them, and keep them safe. I had no choice but to put the protesters to the Exile Posts and...I wouldn’t allow anyone of their blood to go to them with water." She closed her eyes, hands trembling. "I can still perfectly recall their cries for mercy as they wasted away. I still can scent the decaying stench of their bodies left to rot in the sun. For even the sun held no mercy for them, as I could not."

Valin's stomach churned, and he tamped down on the awful feel of bile in his throat. "Gods o' the killed your own people."

Those eyes raised from her hands. Cold. Like two pools of liquid obsidian. Her mouth curved in a grimace that matched Kirwen so much that Valin's mind faltered. "The instant they turned from me, I had to. Or I would lose them all. She poisoned them with treasonous thoughts. Because she said that the way we were created—to mold and rule was wrong. As if she knew. She's no Inventrix. She lacks the need to alter and change things for the better. Couldn't she see that she was destroying the future? Our future?"

She began to mutter to herself, her eyes staring at things not present. He could see now that she was locked in the distant past, far away from him. Her mind lost in the centuries of memories she held. Her mutters became louder, her eyes rolling back, flashing white at him.

The bile seared his throat raw, but even as he trembled, he strode forward. Intent. Uncaring about his own future. Close, he could see her eyes vibrating, her muscles tense. With her in the throes of her distant memories, he could strike.

But when Valin moved but a breath closer, she focused blearily on him once more. Her gaze sharpened, and she frowned at him, truly seeing him again.

"You don't deserve to wear the judge's regalia, Mirena." He needed to get closer, so he placed his hands on the arms of her chair, face close. "Someone needs to stand in judgment of you for the greatest crime—you harmed your own. You killed those of your own Clan."

"I did it, boy," she said, voice hoarse, "to save my Clan from being destroyed from the inside. The other dissenters—"

"Left with her," he growled. "Didn't they? They fled from your so-called justice, and they left to find shelter. To become a new Clan. The Cog Clan and the Wheelteeth are of the same people. We are the same." His fingers tightened over the metal of the chair. "And now, you want to murder them all. Gods-be-damned, you're going to kill all the innocents. Your own people. The Wheelteeth will burn."

"They're not the same. Not any longer, Seven." She reached slowly for the dagger at her side, and he clenched his teeth, waiting for the blow. But she held it out to him, hilt first. "If you think yourself such a judge as an Inventrix, then take it. Take it and betray me."

He took the blade from her jittering fingertips. One movement and this is all over. "Stop the firebomb, Mirena."

"I made the device so that their death will be quick," she whispered. "It's the best mercy I can give them to save my own. It's the only way."

He held the dagger, the point hovering just over her heart.

"Please, Mirena." This close he could smell the faint scent of illness about her, musty and acrid. "You don't have to kill them. Not like that."

She closed her eyes. "I do, Valin. And I will."

His grip tightened until the wound on his palm opened.

"I should've known," she said quietly, half to herself. "I should've known you'd turn against me. I'd grown too fond of you, because you were like strong. I wanted some part of her at my side once more. I wanted you at my side. With my little one. But what folly such a need was. More proof of my decay. Such weakness, the need for...for love like I knew before the breaking. And now, like her, here you stand with the same bedamned righteous ire in your breast, telling me I've failed in my purpose."

Use it. End this all. His muscles quivered as his mind soared over the best way to end her life. His Inventrix. "This is another damned test."

"No, my boy," she said softly. "This is your trial."

This won't save Zef. Or Jarre, Nyru, or Ferrei. This wouldn't stop the war. This wouldn't end the barrage of the Wheelteeth's hurts and losses from streaming through his mind. This might not even stop the firebomb. But he couldn't live with himself if he didn't attempt it...even the slightest possibility...He knew it would mean his death. And the death of his dragon friend. His squadron. At the cost of saving many others...the young ones readying for battle, the innocents like Mayra...

He had to act.

His hand ached, and the blood from his wound poured over the grip of the dagger, making it slick.

I'm so sorry, Zef. Forgive me. 

Flowing without hesitation, his muscles moved with reflexes he'd never before possessed. Fast. Perhaps a match for a decaying Inventrix. Valin thrust the dagger toward her heart.

And her hand caught at his wrist, halting the blade a mere breath away from her flesh. Her grip was harder than iron. He could feel the bones of his wrist grinding together, threatening to snap in twain; he writhed, and his free hand balled into a fist, flying toward her icy façade. But she caught his fist, moving as no more than a blur in his sight. Her grip tightened, and she twisted, pushing him from his stance with a strength inborn and a surety learned from centuries. He could feel the dagger loosen in his grip, even as he fell to the ground. Those cold, dead eyes were searching him as she plucked the dagger from him. He wanted to close his eyes against the pain he knew would come, but he stared into those dark orbs—the eyes of his Inventrix.

With her weight on top of him, she released his wrist and caught at his throat. His lungs seized; stars danced at the edges of his sight.

"This," she said flatly. "Was it within you all along, Valin?"

His fingers dug at her implacable grip, his fingernails gouging at her flesh. She brought the dagger against his face, and slowly the edge of the blade made deep furrows in the flesh of his cheek. A perfect X.

She released him. The coughs that wracked his body seemed like they would never cease, but breath met his lungs in a glorious rush. His bones felt as if they'd fly apart as he began shuddering, gasping.

The Inventrix knelt next to him, the judge's dagger held so casually. He brought his hand up to his face, and the blood poured over his chin. His fingers found the edges of the cut, knowing what his act had gained him.


The traitor's mark.

"One thing I learned, Valin." She held the bloody dagger point down between them. "I was young and untried when my own people rose against me. If you kill a man, then he can't rise against you, but many more will in retaliation. That's why I lost them, all of them. But I should've known: if you take away what defines a person, if you take away their one will help him. And he'll live. You won't have to end his life." She nodded to him. "And you'll live, Seven Valin. I won't take your life, even though you've proved that you're no longer one of mine. And I've given you the brand so everyone else will know it as well."   

The mark burned, and he cradled his cheek, blood hot between his fingers.

"Go." She made a dismissive gesture as she uncoiled and rose to her feet, staring down at him with those depthless eyes. "And if you ever see my Zefir again, tell him that I...I love him. Now, get out of my sight."

He gritted his teeth, and the mark of his flesh burned deeper. "I'm not through with giving you Kirwen's offer."

"Oh? Trying to kill me wasn't enough?"  

"That was my idea and my idea alone. For the crimes you'll commit with that firebomb. I'd never thought to see you as a monster, my Inventrix, but a demon-spawned monster you are." He spat in the dirt between them. "No, this is Kirwen's offer: she challenges you to a duel. One-on-one. To the winner goes the fate of their Clan. The loser must surrender their people to the other. Accept now, and you may gain everything without losing your people, even those feral wildling children you're so eager to murder."

Her body went completely still; her breath ceased. She appeared as no more than a dark statue standing with her weighing eyes.

He waited, not bothering to cover the lurching sound of his heart. Blood poured into his collar, seeping down over his flesh. Slowly, he got to his feet, stumbling as his head whirled. Prick her pride, for it's all she has left. With a growl, he spat, "I'll give her your regards and your refusal. It's obvious you're too weak to match her."

He turned on heel and touched the tent flap when her voice traveled down his spine. "No, not that, Seven Valin."

He forced himself to turn around, to face his Inventrix once more.

"I accept her challenge. Tell her we meet at the Burned Stone plateau tomorrow afternoon, just as the Innari moon makes her first appearance this year." She held out the dagger to him as she'd done before—hilt first. "Give this to her as a promise of my victory. And leave the blood intact."

He took little Mayra's handkerchief from his inner jacket pocket. Balling it up, he tossed it at her feet. "And I give this to you as a gift from one little Wheelteeth girl who didn't know it was wrong to help a Cog man crying. Her name is Lyth Mayra. Remember that you want to burn her."

Something stirred behind those obsidian eyes, and he thought perhaps she was lost in the past again. "I remember the names of all the fallen. Such is the curse of an Inventrix's memory."

She picked up the handkerchief, balled it in her fist, and tossed it back to him. He caught it in his bloody hands.

She began to mutter again; this time he heard a flood of names, her voice louder, "Densu Kartesh, Kerlan Wenzi, Arresten Verr..." And they continued, almost jumbling together as they tumbled from her lips, this list of the dead.

The flood of white-hot fury soared into him, giving him momentary strength, but he spun about and walked from the tent, holding his hatred tight in his mind. When he emerged, the sun was beginning light up the edges of the canyon. Bright. Too bright. The hatred was transforming into something else, something dark. Heavy. And it twisted. It should still be night to reflect the darkness that grew inside of him, worming its way through his gut, his chest, his damned heart.

He stood blinking at the rays of the sundisk, blood dripping from the dagger tip. The Navigators half raised their rifles, staring at the X marked on his face.

Valin stumbled away, carrying the bloody dagger with him.
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