Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #19: A Cry for Justice


Zefir had been lightly dozing, twitching at the thought that the bomb device would go off inside of him. He'd set himself as far from Ferrei and his sibling as possible, trembling, that cold sensation spreading with his fear. He half expected the false memories to accost him, but as of yet none of them had entered his mind. Perhaps Seren truly had purged them from him, even if there was a cost.

Still desperately trying to reach sleep, he faintly heard Ferrei's voice, sounding oddly gentle, faintly amused with the barrage of his sibling dragon's incessant questions. "There. I've told you of the sun, and the Gods of the Forge."

"What others are there?" his sibling asked.

"Well, there are the moons. The big one, the silver moon, Khandra rises every night. But the small, oval red moon, she only appears at harvest time, rising and setting twice each day. Innari watches over the rice harvest." Again, more amusement. "In fact, she's the patroness of all flying creatures as she chases her sister Khandra around the sky, flying faster than her slower sibling. So in a way—"

"Innari," said his sibling thoughtfully. "Yes, a fine name. I shall be Innari."

Zefir rumbled out a chuckle, wondering if he sounded the same way when Valin named him after the western wind.

He cracked open an eye, and stifled another chuckle to see his sibling tapping a claw on her chin in thought. Zefir's lips curled into a smile. "Well'home then, Innari, my sibling. A fine choice of name. No doubt you'll fly circles around your own sibling, just like your namesake."

She blinked her violet-colored eyes at him and said without guile, "Of course I will."

His laughter lightened all of the heavy weight bearing down on him. "If only your mother were alive to see you out-fly me, little Innari. What joy she would have at seeing you prosper."

"You keep saying this 'mother' thing, but I'm not certain what that means. I do know the definition...but I don't know what it means for me." She hopped toward him eagerly, but he recoiled from her, worried that he would be her death. Seren had said the concoction in the bomb would be stable...but...

But still she sat on her haunches and bobbed her head at him. "Tell me, Zefir-sibling."

Ferrei was watching him with that familiar wry amusement that he hadn't seen in so long. "Now she can ask you all the questions."

He stiffened when his sibling came to butt her head beneath his chin; she flopped down at his feet, sniffing at his healing hands. When she leaned against his bulk, he could feel that her pseudo-metallic skin was smoother than his own, the same warmth as a human's. He wondered if he would get to curl up next to her ever again, before Kirwen tore them apart, or before he expired, or any of the number of things that might happen. So though he feared for her, he convinced himself that if he didn't move at all, he might allow himself to be happy for just this single moment—three minutes, fourteen seconds—at the thought that there was finally another like him.

Ferrei seemed to note his hesitation. "It won't go off unless all three liquids combine, and that won't happen without the timer, which was never repaired. I sealed it well. She's safe as any of us can be, which is to say—" she made the gesture for: acceptance of what is to be.

And as Innari butted the top of her head, horns and all, against his chin again in impatience, Zefir told her of Seren, spinning what he knew of the happier parts of his friend's life for the dragon-child she'd created. As he spoke he realized how little he knew of Seren's life—

She could hear their desperate pleas in her dreams, the same variation of "don't let me die, I have family, friends, loved ones to return to," voices that she would recollect with an Inventrix's uncanny skill, memories that wanted to drown her. She was never bred to be a healer, and yet she'd tried when others wouldn't dare the bloody fields pounded by bombs and bolts. She didn't count the number she'd saved, but some part of her remembered more the faces of those she'd failed to save.

"She was lonely," he said sadly, not realizing immediately that he'd spoken aloud. "For a long time. But she, like you, tried to help people. She tried very hard."

"You're sad," Innari said, placing her little hand gently over his. "I can hear it. A sense of loss will impede your healing. Would you like to speak on it? I will listen."

His throat felt thick, his breaths uneven. Did Seren create you to heal the mind as well? "No, Innari, my sorrow is my own. One day perhaps, I'll speak on it, but today is not that day. But thank you for your kindness."

She stood, looking suddenly so small, so young. "I will listen when you are ready, sibling."

Innari turned her head sharply to stare at the door, and she stood, cocking her ears to listen. It was minute later that Zefir heard the rapid footsteps—so her hearing was vastly improved over his too. Sensing something amiss, Ferrei ran forward to place herself in front of both of them, determination in her stance. Innari shook her head, and with one of those great wings she pushed Ferrei gently back behind them, his Second sputtering protests that both the dragons ignored.

Zefir listened. It wasn't Kirwen, that much he knew. There were at least ten people. When the lab door opened wide on its large mechanical hinges, he saw that all ten had aerorifles, and the one out front—one of his guards, Zefir recognized him as the one he'd threatened to roast alive—ordered the others to aim their rifles at him.

"Leader Kirwen needs the small dragon," said the guard, eyeing them all as threats.

"The Wolf can greet all the demons in the ten hells," said Ferrei, moving to stand at Innari's side, "before I'll let your Leader just take her."

The guard shook his helmed head. "She needs her services. As a...a healer." He sounded very disbelieving. "There've been injuries."

"Injuries?" snapped Innari, lifting her head. Alert. "What injuries? Describe them, and let's fly."

Zefir felt that cold sensation of his fear spread. "Who's injured?"

The guard stammered, "Well, you see, you must understand...one of your people tried to escape, and...well...he shot one of our people. And then he...well you see, he tried to take off in one of your flyers to escape and...crashed it."

Zefir's creeping sense of dread increased. In fear he barked to his sibling, "Gallop through the walkways. You won't be able to fly. Go up. Upward. Toward the take-off ledges. And Innari," his voice dropped, lending his baritone more weight, "don't let anyone stop you."

A very serious expression formed on her face, one that he knew would become familiar as she aged into a capable and fierce healer, the sort of expression that brooked absolutely no nonsense. Before any of the guards could protest, she took a bounding leap and soared over their heads without any effort. Zefir watched her galloping in an effortless stride until she ran around the corner of the curved hallway and was gone from his sight.  

He stuck out his elbow to Ferrei. "Get on."

With the long practice of scrabbling into thopters, Ferrei took two bounding leaps and perched in Valin's accustomed seat as Navigator. Zefir's fear pressed against him, his heart-mind thrumming rapidly. The main guard moved to halt him as Zefir took a step forward. Zefir knew—somehow he knew—that the guards wouldn't fire on him. Kirwen would never allow it.

Without stopping, he walked into their midst, ignoring his guard's threats and protestations. He made no sharp movements, and forced himself to walk slowly, though his front feet-hands were still painful. Finally, they parted for him, unable to stop him as if he were the inevitable tide. When he turned the corner, the guards following him in helpless confusion, he broke into a run.

One of his squad was hurt. Jarre...or Valin.

As he made his way through the hallways, he put on a burst of speed.

No one would stop him. No one.

#

Zefir found the flight ledge, and the great number of people gathered around it. Wheelteeth Navs, and other clan members gawked, and he spotted one young healer, the five-point palm sigil on her blue tunic, staring in surprise. When he approached them he could feel a frustrated roar sitting within his insides, clamoring to be released. Worried that in his fear that he might release flame, he swallowed it, opening his mouth to shout instead, "Make way!"

The crowd startled at his voice, and one bystander let out a surprised little scream, but they parted for him. Inside, an elderly matron, the red star next to the five-point palm sigil marking her as a doctor-level healer, watched Innari with an intrigued twist to her sour mien.

The little dragon clamped her teeth over a large bolt sticking from a young techworker's arm. Innari bit the bolt in half, shortening it, and then began to slide the metal from his flesh between her two fingers. Unmoved, the doctor staunched the flow of blood, assisting his sibling as if she'd been used to mechanical dragons all her long life.

Zefir looked around. Where was Valin? Or Jarre? Where was his injured squad member?

He heard shouting from down below, and bounding for the edge, he felt Ferrei stiffen upon his back as she saw what he saw. On the ground lay pieces of Ferrei's sparrowhawk flyer, and a crowd had gathered around it—no, not a crowd. A mob. Men and women in guard colors pressed them back, but even this high up he could hear the increase in their rage: techworkers, men and women not in colors, even a few Navs. On a spot in the grass, there lay a prone figure, and Kirwen's unmistakable outline next to—to Valin.

"Gods, no," Zefir breathed.

Come, child. Bring your sibling. Your Navigator is hurt—[fear at what her people would be driven to].

In his fear, he drowned out the sound of her voice inside his chest, shaking his head. "No, no, no..."

He felt Ferrei touch his side. "We won't know until we go to him, Zefir."

"Innari!" he shouted to his sibling. "With me! Valin needs your help. He might be..." he swallowed uneasily around the idea that his Navigator might already have...no he wasn't dead. "Please, little sibling. Please."

She didn't take her eyes from the boy she was working on. "I must make certain my patient is stable first before I—"

"The boy's fine, damn it to the ten hells," he barked. "Valin might be...dying."

"Then your friend is my priority," she said.

Innari nodded solemnly to the elder healer, who continued to work on the young man's wound. His sibling lifted her wings slightly, and without another word gathered up bandages and leaped off of the ledge. Her long wings were outspread in flight for the first time in her life—oh, how magnificent, how effortless she looked. Zefir leaped out after her, and he could feel Ferrei on his back clutch at his flight panel, having no flight saddle upon him. It was the only reason he slowed his descent, otherwise he would have pushed himself into a dive.

As he flew closer, he could see blood. And panic settled in, the pain agonizing. He alighted next to Valin's prone body, seeing Innari already listening to Valin's chest, her dragon hands touching his wrist for a pulse. Nodding to herself, she turned to the wounds on his shoulder: a gash, and his hand...had been punctured.

"He's unconscious, but his other injuries can be repaired," Innari announced. "I see no evidence of internal injury. This Valin person will survive. With a serious headache, and a hand that will ache for many moons, but he'll survive."

Kirwen nodded, her face creased in an unreadable expression.

Ferrei leaped from her seat and stood next to him, staring at the crowd, her mouth a slash of worry.

The sound of the mob grew louder, and the guards couldn't press them back any longer. Shouts of "Justice for Zareth!" and "Kill the Cog scum!" came in waves from the choir of anger. Kirwen rose to her feet, but her voice was drowned out as the mob shouted for her to do something, to act, to feed their need for violence. Even Zefir couldn't hear what she said to try to soothe her people, and through his virul connection with her, he could only sense her growing frustration with these short-lived, short-sighted children who still refused to listen to her.

Zefir inhaled a great mechanical lungful of air, braced himself, and unleashed a roar; the violence and anger of it was so powerful that he startled even himself. And when the guards broke in fearful surprise, the mob ceased to press forward as Zefir lifted his snout, opened his mouth and roared forth the largest burst of flame his body had ever conjured. He heat of it made men and women jump back, some screaming, others falling to the grass.

He watched Kirwen out of the corner of his eye, and saw her shake her head slightly; she didn't bother to send her virul-voice to him, and for a moment he understood why Seren yearned to sense it.

One in the mob lifted a glob of mud and threw it at him. It splattered against his side, dripping off his brass hide. He wanted to unleash his fury for what they'd done to Valin; he wasn't stupid, the hole in his Navigator's hand had come from a flechette bolt. He could stomp them all into the ground without even breathing hard, he could roast them all to cinders—

Calm yourself, child, came the voice, expanding inside of him. You wouldn't harm these frightened innocents, I know it [calm certainty and conviction]. Know that what I do next isn't kind or enjoyable, but it will be the only way to save your friend from their rage.

He didn't know how to speak to her without words, and so he growled, "You're their Leader, damn you. You can fix this. Let us go. Let us all go."

Again, that slight, sad shake of her head. I may be their Leader, but I'm not their Inventrix. My word isn't instantly law. I'm not obeyed without question. They have a choice to listen or to not, for the Elders to debate and override my decisions. "And that is why you must allow this, child."

She turned to the crowd, and lifted her voice to be heard, using grand tones of both an Inventrix and a trained orator. "Listen to me, my Clan! Listen well. I hear your fear and anger. You're afraid. All of you. You know what comes, that the final battle approaches. These who you see as enemy are in our midst, but it's time that you listen to one who has weathered generations with your Elders and their Elder's Elders." She paused, and the mob remained silent. "Your grandmeres and grandferes have forgotten why we fight. Long ago, it ceased to matter to you. But I will tell you why our fight matters more than just your need for vengeance, for the hurts this war had placed on you and your loved ones."

Kirwen gestured to Valin, still prone with eyes closed, but Zefir blocked out the sound for a moment of everything but his Navigator's breathing. He's alive. Alive. Innari will help him.

Silence. All were listening.

"The Cog Clan took our children during the famine times. Our teachers gift you with this knowledge in class, and you can recite it by rote."

Zefir saw many of them nod curtly in agreement.

"What I've failed to do over the years, as your Leader and as one of you, is to convince each new generation of the truth—a painful truth that you have disbelieved in the past. I only hope that now, so close to the end, you will finally heed the truth." Kirwen paused and no one made a sound. "My own granddaughter was stolen from me during the famine times. You know this fuels me in the fight, you've chanted her name like a patroness in the air, as if her spirit will watch over you. My little granddaughter. But the truth is, my people, is that one of her descendants lies before you."

Kirwen gestured to Valin, and Innari was checking his neck, carefully studying him without moving him.

Many in the crowd murmured, and their voices rose in confusion.

"This man," and Kirwen pointed, "is of the Cog Clan. He is also a direct descendant of my granddaughter."

Even Zefir exhaled in surprise; Ferrei made a similar sound.

"This man," and Kirwen's voice rose, determined, "is of my blood. Of the blood of our people. He is one of ours. We must know when we go to fight them, that we fight our own—lost and removed from us. That we go not to destroy them, but in order to become victors we must welcome those we've hated back into our lives. We will rule them, not in hatred but in—"

"A lie!" a voice from the crowd yelled. "Tell us you lie in jest, great Leader!"

Another shouted him down, "The Wolf doesn't lie! Her honor is beyond reproach!"

The voices bubbled into an indecipherable chorus of confusion.

Can Valin truly be of Kirwen's blood? Zefir wondered.

Ferrei murmured, "She lies. A terrible, hateful lie."

Zefir could sense it. He knew that Kirwen felt her words were truth. "No, Ferrei. She speaks the truth."

Kirwen lifted her brass hands, the lines of her face creased with determination and pride, with surety and strength of will. "Even if none of you will believe it, even you run to your Elders to ask them for the truth, listen to me now and heed my demands." She pointed to Valin again, the motion sharp. Insistent. "I claim him of my own blood. Of my family. I do not ask that we forgive his trespasses against not only one of our own, the young Lyth Zareth, but one of his own family as well. Such an act has only one punishment, and as I've claimed him as family, so too shall he be punished as one—as of our Clan."

Ferrei breathed, "Sun preserve us, no."

Kirwen's voice lifted, booming even without the artifice of her mask, just with the power of her own certainty. "Enemies are put to the firing squad. But those of our own who try to kill one of their own family, there is only one punishment."

Zefir realized it too late. The Wheelteeth weren't so different from the Cog Clan after all. He closed his eyes against the false memory he expected to accost him, but only a small wisp of memory intruded on his fear—

Zefir shuddered to see his squad lined up before the entire Clan, tied to posts buried firmly in the ground

And then was gone.

"The Exile Posts!" screamed one in the crowd. The others took up the chant, their voices loathsome in their glee, saying over and over, "To the Posts! Take him to the Posts!"

Zefir could grab Valin, he could take Ferrei and fly away from here faster than anyone could chase him. His Navigator and his Second would be safe...but that meant leaving Nyru and Jarre behind to suffer the punishment of their broken parole, or the Wheelteeth Clan's increasing violence. Every muscle within him tensed, his wing joints felt aflame with the need to fly, to flee with the only two he could save. He had failed to keep them from harm...

Ferrei placed her hand on his elbow and said softly, "Don't."

He was tired of feeling so helpless, so powerless. He inhaled to roar in frustration, but Ferrei's steady hand on his elbow made the air rush out in a weary sigh. Miserably, he said, "He'll die, Ferrei. I can't let that happen."

"You don't know that. Your Nav is stronger than your think." But she chewed her lower lip, eyes distant in thought.

Kirwen nodded and one of the guards moved for Valin's prone form, but Innari blocked his way, eyes narrowing. His sibling said fiercely, "Unless you're a healer and you're moving him carefully to a healing location, then think again, small thing. If you intend my patient harm..."

The guard hesitated to be met with a talking dragon baring her teeth at him.

Kirwen nodded to the man. "Assist the little dragon with my kin to the prison."

The Wolf Leader turned to Zefir, meeting his eye. Her virul voice pressed against his insides, but he gritted his teeth against it, blocking her out. Finally, meeting her eye, feeling the greatest rush of violent hatred he'd ever held inside, he glared at her, his skin heating until Ferrei took her bandaged hand from him in discomfort.

And he finally found his inner-voice: This marks us as enemies, Kirwen. Though I didn't before, I do—[the pressing rage, the sheer violence of his hate], yes, hate you now.

Kirwen stumbled from the onslaught of his voice, and dabbed at her nose as it began to bleed.

You've destroyed everything I love, he continued, his fury pressing harder. You were born to it, and your blood purpose is only to destroy-annihilate-damage-devastate. Look at how your people howl for blood, and they do so because that's the only thing they learned from you.

And Zefir growled aloud, "We were supposed to be enemies before, but in my childish naiveté I believed that there was good inside of you, only that your aims were misguided. Maybe I could find a way to...to repair the rift between our two Clans. Between you and Mother. Between me and you. But I was wrong. You are my enemy. In all senses of the word. And I won't cease until I crush you for what you've done."

"Child..." she croaked, holding her nose, legs wobbling. "This is the only way."

"A child no longer blind," he said. "I see what you are."

When a memory not his own threatened to well up and thrust its way into his thoughts, he unleashed his loudest roar, deafening even to his own ears. Kirwen stumbled and fell to her knees in the grass, closing her eyes against the pound of his hatred in her mind.

"You, Kirwen," he growled, "you are the one who is the monster."

He grabbed Ferrei up in his aching hands, spread his wings, and launched himself upward toward one of the lowest ledges near the mechanical-door entrance to the mountain. He watched while Innari gathered Valin up carefully in her arms, ordering the guard about.

Distantly he felt Kirwen's virul voice rattling inside his chest: You're right, Zefir.

He settled himself to watch over his Navigator when her voice came again, weaker:

You're right.
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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #18: Debt of Blood


Zefir heard the lab door unlocking, and though he wished with all his might that it would be Valin, he could sense who it was standing there, her pain sharp against his insides, pressing, wrenching, until the cold sensation spread in sympathy.

Kirwen burst through the door, and while she looked briefly at the outline of the body beneath the sheet, her eyes flashed in a strange mixture of sorrow and anger when her gaze fell on Zefir's wounds. She marched forward in that eerily predatory manner, her mind focused on—

My ward. Who dared to harm him? I failed once more to protect what's mine. [death to the perpetrator— overwhelming rage].

Zefir shook his head at the thoughts he knew were not his own. The power of them was astonishing. Was this even a fraction of what Seren shared with her mirrors? If so, how could they have lived with this uncomfortably intimate connection, much less yearned for it?

Kirwen placed her hands up toward Zefir. "I must inspect your wounds—"

"I'm fine," Zefir assured her.

"Fine?" said the Wolf incredulously, her brass fingers reaching for his chest. "You've been burned. I can smell the acid. You're in pain. Tell me how this happened."

This last was said with all of the command of an Inventrix expecting to be obeyed.

He wanted to lie. He wondered if she could sense his own rolling emotions with the same strength he had hers.

"I spilled the acid when I—"

"Don't bother to lie to me, child," she barked, turning an eye on his Second. "You're protecting her."

Death. No mercy for the one that harmed my ward [boiling rage].

"It wasn't..." Zefir croaked the words, his stance settling into a tired, wilted posture. "I was...protecting my sibling from Ferrei." Before Kirwen could blurt out her anger, Zefir continued, "She didn't mean to hurt me. Ferrei just...misunderstood."

Ferrei stood very close to his dragon sibling, the creature only twice the Second's considerable height. When Kirwen glared at his Second, Ferrei dropped her gaze to the stone floor. The Wolf paced forward, murder in her eye.

Zefir moved to pounce upon Kirwen, if only to pluck her up into his hands, but one of his sibling's wings unfolded, and spread to cover Ferrei completely from their  sight; the sheer length of them boggled his mind as he wondered at their size; she could easily wrap Ferrei three times over.

The dragon sibling cocked her head at Kirwen, and pursed—pursed!—her lips. Her voice was more serious, deeper, "Hmm, I don't think I like your tone, small thing. No, I don't like it at all. You must speak nicely to my kin."

Kirwen stiffened in surprise. "Kin? You are mistaken, young one. What has this damnable Quarethstra woman been telling you? It's clear she intends to harm you. Come away with me now and—"

"Your tone, small thing." His sibling's brow ridges, smoother than his own, narrowed. "Mind it around my kin, who is also my patient. She needs rest, not—not this."

"Patient?" Kirwen mused. "Of course, she made you to be a healer, didn't she? Perhaps as good as a doctor bloodline of the first level."

"I fix, I repair," said his sibling matter-of-factly, her snout raised. "Now, small thing, retreat to the corner until your anger is under control. Then you may visit with my kin-patient when she wills it."

"Come away, young one," Kirwen said with a curt motion. "We'll leave this blood-ridden place and this—this woman who tried to destroy you will be punished, I assure you."

"Your tone," growled his sibling, showing her small rows of very sharp teeth. Her wings fluttered, and she hunched herself into an intimidating defensive posture. "Back away, small thing. I'll not let you have my kin-patient." Her claws came out, and a dark liquid dripped from them, smelling acrid. Dangerous.

If she tried to attack Kirwen, what would the Leader do with her? Or worse yet, if his sibling managed to kill the Leader—and part of Zefir despaired at that, despite all the threats she'd heaped upon them—what would the Wheelteeth do to his squadron without their Leader to reign them in?

Zefir was about to growl a command when Ferrei spoke.

"Her tone is deserved, little flyer," Ferrei said miserably, gently touching the dragon's wings until his sibling retracted them. "My intent was to harm you before you awoke, and your sibling—Zefir, he saved you. He took the brunt of the acid concoction I chose to destroy you, and that was how he came to harm. I'm not worth shielding."

The little dragon sinuously turned her head to regard Ferrei. "You couldn't have harmed me with that. My hide is much more impervious to such things. And though my Zefir-sibiling is less impervious, he will scar after a day. Still, that was rather a mean thing to do, my kin. I'll admit I'm not certain why you would want to destroy me, especially before I had a chance to tell you that you're my family."

For the first time, Zefir saw his Second's lips tremble as she held back tears. Not even after Denaru's death did she weep, at least not in his presence. "I owe you and your sibling a blood debt, little flyer. I've failed my vows so many times now." Zefir had never seen the ritual obeisance of one offering their life to another for the deepest blood-debt, but Ferrei bowed her head, and made a beautiful combination of the giving thanks to the sun and the wrist-forehead touching motion of calling to the dead ones passed on. "My life belongs to you."

He inhaled slowly as the temperatures inside his chest wavered, moved by the beauty and sincerity of her words. Of her new vow. The woman who had called him Abomination was now pledging herself to a new dragon mechanical.

The sibling-dragon bumped her wing against Ferrei the way a human would nudge with an elbow. "A ridiculous notion, kin, having anyone own your life." She blinked in true confusion. "Makes no sense."

She turned to Zefir with the open palm gesture. Waiting for him to accept.

"There's no blood-debt between us, Ferrei," he said. "Besides, I've no blood inside me anyway. It's enough that we're of the same squad. I still trust you with my life, Second."

She turned from him, mouth in a quivering line. "I don't deserve your trust, Zefir."

"Truly touching." Kirwen regarded them, eyes glazing over for a moment when—

"I'll always trust you with my life, lissteri. That's one of the meanings. The 'i' for infinity," said Seren, yearning to hold hands.

Zefir closed his eyes for a moment. For though Seren's memories and Kirwen's thoughts were not as terrifying as his own false memories, they were still painful, like an old ache that wouldn't heal.

Kirwen met his eye. "You know why she gave you her virul 'cogs, don't you, child? The true reason?"

He shook his head.

"Not for the reason she told you, whatever it was. No, she did so in order that your heart-mind would purge your false memories from you in order to accommodate the virul 'cogs. Even in the end her selflessness was genuine." She still wouldn't look at the sheet where her mirror lay. "Not that her memories will necessarily be easier to bear. Or whatever you've been able to sense from me."

"Will I learn of the Trial?" Zefir asked as softly as he could. "Or will you tell me?"

Her eyes traveled to find her mirror's body, and quickly turned away. "I hope you never learn of it, child." Kirwen straightened as if coming to a decision, head held high, determined at she stared into his eyes. She looked like the Wolf once again as she held out her hand, palm up. "You must give me the bomb device. Your squadron has already broken their parole, so you gain nothing by refusing. And don't insult me by feigning ignorance. I can more easily sense your lies now that we are irrevocably connected."

His mind was blank, and the gnawing sensation of hopelessness turned into a hollow ache inside. She knew. Their only hope of escape was gone.

Ferrei came from around the dragon-sibling and said, "Here. I have it."

She reached into her flight jacket and withdrew a poorly cobbled together piece of tech that Zefir could only assume was supposed to be a copy. He wanted to embrace his Second Leader for trying such a ruse. She'd certainly made it out of the half-broken pieces of the original when he first broke it.

Kirwen strode forward, grasped the device, and hurled it from her. It shattered against the stone wall, and anger once again etched its way across the Wolf's features. Zefir knew with uncanny certainty that she would never forget Ferrei had harmed Zefir—one of hers. The fury displayed by her failing, her slower death, would only increase into rage-filled madness, and he could sense that her thoughts focused on her life ticking away, fueling the anger.

Kirwen spat, "Did you truly think I couldn't tell that was a dummy?"

Ferrei shrugged, and the dragon sibling craned her wing over her again. "It seems the only dummy here is the one you just destroyed, Leader Kirwen."

Kirwen still held her hand out to Zefir. "Give it to me, child."

Zefir stifled a grimace, and gestured to his battered chest panel. "It is within me. And the panel needs time to heal before it will open. Look, the edges have been burned together. Even if I wished to give it to you, I cannot."

A flash of alarm marred the fury on Kirwen's familiar face. "Tell me it hasn't been armed."

"We didn't have time to fill the chambers with the caustic liquid."

"You're still a poor liar." Kirwen pointed an unerring brass finger. "You're a danger to everyone until I can remove the device. You will remain here, as it's far enough underground and remote enough that the—the explosion won't harm my people." She jutted her chin at Ferrei and the sibling. "I will take you two."

Zefir glared, his skin radiating with the heated shame at his horrible failure. Or perhaps some of Kirwen's anger was infecting him. "If you harm my Second, or any of my squadron because of this ridiculous parole, I'll tear this mountain down around your ears."

The Wolf Leader met his gaze squarely. "Yes, I can see it's no idle threat, war dragon. I haven't forgotten what you were made for."

Silence fell between them, but Zefir could think of no way to break the inevitable stalemate.

"New dragon child," said Kirwen, trying to halt her trembling. Not all the muscle tremors were from her anger, as Zefir could now feel through their connection that her body was beginning to obey her less and less. "I cannot allow you to expire. Come, young one, and I'll explain it to you later—"

"Oh, no," said the sibling, baring her teeth. "I understand only that you are threatening my patients, and my kin. And I fear I must become very cross with you if you try to remove them."  

Kirwen's expression became cold as a the granite mountainside, and in that moment she appeared so like Mother that Zefir had to look away. "So it appears as if they've already turned you against me. A pity." Her eyes flickered over Ferrei. "Well done, Second Leader. I'd say earning her loyalty is much better than destroying such a remarkable invention. And I suppose you will also stay?"

Ferrei nodded once in curt agreement.

"Very well."

Kirwen moved with aching slowness toward Seren's body and knelt next to her mirror. She pulled back the sheet from Seren's face relaxed in death, those empty eyes staring at nothing. Kirwen closed her mirror's eyes, and brushed back the puff of wild, untamable hair from Seren's forehead. She placed her arms beneath the body and lifted her mirror into her arms, moving for the door without another word.

Zefir could feel the vibrating sensation of her sorrow as if his mechanical insides were threatening to stutter to a grinding halt. And he hated that they must be at odds, for perhaps in another life, in a world where they weren't named as enemies, he could've counted her as one of his staunchest friends. Or another parent.

"I'm sorry, Kirwen," he breathed. Sorry for so many things. For her loss and his, for the war, for having to make his threats.

"I know, Zefir." She didn't turn to him, but held Seren's body tighter. "I know."

She left the lab and the door locked behind her.

#

Valin pumped his arms as he ran; the flechette bolt sizzled across his shoulder, leaving a hot trail in its wake. He couldn't yell to Zareth that he wasn't escaping, that he had tried running toward the man's Leader and was focused on the same goal. But all of his energy was spent in dodging around the next bend as the stone ramp went upwards and not down toward the lab; Zareth was getting closer with his shots, and no matter how Valin's side ached and his lungs heaved, fear pressed him faster, faster, the sweat pouring down his back.

He tried to avoid the busy walkways, but as his shooter advanced on him, Valin broke out into one of the broad courses that wrapped around the outside of the mountain. He heard Zarth curse as Valin slammed through the few people who had enough leisure time to remain idle, knowing that his true aim would never be met—there was no way to descend to the lab. To Zefir.

Forgive me, my dragon friend. For the first time in years, Valin prayed to the Forge Gods, urging them to look over Zefir, hoping his friend was hearty and hale. But he feared otherwise.

He heard a bellow as one of the bystanders—a man who wore no bloodline colors, launched himself at Valin. But Valin anticipated the fellow's slow movement, and ducked beneath, spinning to avoid those outstretched hands. A series of screams echoed in fear as the boy—stupid, idiotic boy!—dared to shoot his weapon in the middle of so many innocents. The men and women of the Wheelteeth ducked to the ground, children shrieked for their parents, and Valin almost toppled as a flechette shattered the rock near his face.

Zareth intends to kill. If he stopped, the boy would kill him. If he tried to explain, he'd die. Perhaps the boy had something to prove, or maybe he hated Valin's blood and Clan so much that he'd willingly place his own people at risk to murder him.

He renewed his efforts and remained in the public space, running ever upward through the hallway spiral ramps going up—up. Toward the take off ledges. He spotted men and women in their reddish flight jackets and skull masks, others in repair suits for maintaining the gryphons. Eyes turned toward him as he sped beyond each ledge, now filled with fifty gryphons or more. Their Navigators spied him, one moved for him in confused hesitation. But all would recognize his dark brown flight jacket, rather than their red leather, and the Cog Clan's shield symbol emblazoned on his bleeding shoulder. When he tore off his jacket, his shoulder screamed in pain, and he didn't have enough breath to do more than grunt as he tossed it from him, hoping the other Navs would be slow to recognize him as a threat.

The ledge he was looking for must be close. It had to be. He didn't know if he could keep running, or if—

He had to. From some inner reserve within, he put on more speed, his heart pounding inside his head until he could hear nothing else. He couldn't hear if there was shouting, or the steps behind him. He gritted his teeth and pumped his arms. The ledge was here. It had to be.

It was.

He dived around the corner and ran out on to the ledge, the cold winds this high up battering at him without his jacket. There. They were there! Nyru and Jarre's thopter bombers, and Ferrei's single-person sparrowhawk. If he'd had enough breath he would've crowed in triumph.

Ferrei's sparrowhawk glider was sitting still, its wings retracted into its sternum. The rifle in its snout was likewise retracted, but if he could bypass its start-up systems...he leaped aboard and his fingers danced over the buttons and levers, silently giving thanks to his Third for insisting he learn all of the flyer systems by heart. He bypassed the hawkling's procedure for warming its engines and extending the wings before being able to use the gun.

He checked the indicator to see if there were any bolts left in the chamber, for surely the Wheelteeth would've divested the flyer of its extra load of bolts.

Two—there were two left.

He didn't have time to aim, and the gun wasn't fully opened, when Zareth ran around the corner. He squeezed the trigger. The bolt soared outward and crashed through the carved stone archway that led to the ledge, Zareth crying out and ducking back. Valin desperately pulled the heavy lever to chamber the next round—one, one left.

Zareth blindly stuck his arm out and shot at him; the flechettes pinged against the hawkling's torso. One speared through one of the take-off feet, and the entire flyer listed to the side, so he desperately fought to re-aim the thing.

Fighting for time, he yelled to his assailant, "Lyth Zareth! My intention was only to reach the same destination as your Leader. I mean Leader Kirwen no harm! Keep your weapon, but holster it, and I will return with you to meet with her!" 

"Shut up, scum!" the boy barked.

Soon, Navs would grab their weapons and add themselves to the fray, called by the sound of bolt shots; Valin had little time to convince anyone that he wasn't a threat. Quickly, he began the start-up procedures for the engines, and the hawkling began to hum as its heart ticked, its wings beginning to unfurl.

Zareth rounded the corner, his mouth in a determined line; the boy lifted his pistol, aiming for Valin, his eyes so filled with hate that Valin had no doubt that he had to fire. He pulled the trigger.

But with the hawkling's wings retracting, the flyer yawed; his last bolt flew wide of the boy's chest and buried in Zareth's forearm. Yelling, Valin pushed the sequence of buttons for the legs of the hawkling to walk in reverse. It stuttered, hobbling backward toward the end of the ledge. Zareth still lifted the pistol, and bolts rained against the body of his flyer; Valin heard the violent hiss of the cooling system being shattered. Warnings blared. He felt one of the legs hit air and nothing else.

It wouldn't fly, he knew that. The engine wouldn't start. If he were lucky, he would glide to the ground below, but—

The firing stopped as the boy reloaded, and Valin desperately cried out once again that he would willingly surrender. He even dared to lift one hand up, palm outward, while the flyer tilted, ready to fall.

"You murdered my mother!" Zareth bellowed, blood pouring down his arm. "You and all your blood-ridden Clan! There's no surrender!"

Zareth pulled the trigger. Valin felt the bolt spear through his hand, and he clasped at the bleeding agony, disbelieving of the hole through the center of his palm. Forcing his bloody hand to curl around the Navigator stick, he pushed the last leg of the hawkling out over the ledge and he was—

Falling. Tumbling. Without his jacket or gear, the cold winds tore at him like ruthless fingers; his breath was stolen from him. The wings were spread but he began to spiral downward. Too sharp an angle to correct without the engines or the beat of the hawkling's wings. He slapped his hands against the panel's buttons; he couldn't feel his hands; his eyes watered. The bypass codes, he entered them again to start the engine, praying to any and all that would listen. The ground below grew closer in his watery sight. People below scattered. Harvesters in their green abandoned wares on carts and ran for the entrance to the caves.

The engine stuttered to life. He pulled back on the Nav stick desperately, feeling the wings beating. But it was too late. He began to glide, the nose up. The ground filled his sight.

At the last moment, he threw one of the flight straps over his chest, placed his hands over his head, and braced for impact.

The crunching sound filled his ears, and he closed his eyes as the flyer flipped end over end. The single strap failed him, and he had the sensation of flying—true flight—as his body was tossed from the wreckage.

The only other thing he knew was darkness. 

Read Part 19: A Cry for Justice
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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #17: Of Kith and Kin


Valin stood with his hands in fists as Lyth Zareth poked him yet again with the muzzle of a flechette rifle, seemingly for no reason. Nyru remained outwardly unconcerned and impassive, but every time the Lyth boys dropped the muzzle of their pistols a fraction, Jarre would tense up as if considering a wild leap upon them all, then would relax when their First would frown.

And still the assembly line moved along without them, chuffing its usual inexorable music, gears grinding with the speed at which they were throwing together all of the pieces for the ketch-gryphons.

Elder Lyth sat upon a chair placed out for her, her mouth in an ancient, jowly frown, her hand on a cane one of her many descendants had brought to their esteemed Director. Every fifteen seconds or so the Director would tap the butt of her cane on the stone floor to the beat of the line's whomp-whomp-whomp-hiss, only for Valin to realize he'd been nervously tapping his foot to the same beat.

The heartbeat of a second-level tech, he thought wryly.

Zareth forced the muzzle against Valin's arm with enough force to leave a bruise, so Valin spun about; the other Lyths lifted their pistols quickly. Valin met the young Director Second's eye and said calmly, "I would truly appreciate if you didn't bother to show your very obvious superiority by poking at me like a child."

Elder Lyth's eyes flashed. "Zareth, the Cog scum is baiting you to step inside his guard again. Either step far enough away to where he can't attack you, or so help me boy, I'll let him strike you as a lesson."

After her blood-kin stepped away from Valin, she ignored Zareth to say, "Care to make this easier on you three by telling us where you hid the device?"

"I don't know what you mean," said Nyru, the scarred half of her face taught.

"Oh, dear, well then," the Director said with a wry smile, "I'll take great joy in seeing you say as such to Leader Kirwen."

As if summoned by her name, the Wolf entered, her intricately created brass hands in fists, her expression contorted in such fury that Valin instinctively took a step back; her eyes flashed, and when she spoke her voice was taught with contained violence, "So many idle. Go back to work and finish your duties."

The men holding the rifles on Nyru and Jarre hesitated, but lowered their weapons when their Leader affixed them with her molten stare. Only Zareth remained when the Leader nodded that his presence as guard would be tolerated.

Then the Wolf turned with a sinuous motion Valin had only ever seen water snakes make, as if she were to bare her fangs, coiled before the strike. She ignored his First, clearly dismissed his Third, and took two steps closer to Valin.

"You," came her voice through clenched teeth. "You have broken your parole for your squadron by trying to escape. Tell me where you've hidden your bomb device and I will spare them, for I'm well within my rights to tie you all to the Exile Posts and let you wither away."

Valin squared his shoulders to hide his fear. "The Exile Posts are only for traitors and the treasonous, and since we're not of your Clan—"

"You are of my Clan!" she roared. "You, Seven Valin, are mine. I've returned at least one of your blood to its rightful place! And I won't stop until all have been reclaimed!"

Zareth stiffened in surprise at Valin's side, and Elder Lyth blinked her old eyelids, opening them wide.

"She stole them from me!" Kirwen's voice rose over the din of the assembly line. "My wards! Our children! I'll kill her, I'll murder her with my last breath for what pain she's caused me! She took my children from me."

Valin could see the madness in her eye, the violence with which she might strike him with her superior Inventrix-like strength. But if she thought he'd bow to her like all of her Clan underlings, he would show her the strength of his people, his Clan, and his blood.

The strength of Seven. Of the Lyth. For they were one and the same.

"She didn't murder them," he said evenly, chin raised. "You know it, Kirwen. You knew that Mirena would make them her own. Those children that were once yours are now hers. Ours. The men and women you go to fight are the very same of the blood that you lost all those generations ago." He thrust a finger in Nyru's direction, only for his First to begin a protest, but stopped when Valin shook his head. "Kerlan Nyru is of the Cog Clan. Her blood was once yours. Kerlan Xenthi, you said. You knew her ancestor. Her Originator was once of the Wheelteeth." He saw only Nyru's shocked expression, her scar making her bewilderment look both grim and almost comical. "But how many of her kin have you slain in the skies? If her kin are yours, then you've committed the worst crime of both our Clans."

The Wolf Leader was trembling with rage, her mechanical fingers spasming.

Valin pressed on, "You've murdered your own. Countless times. For as long as this hellish war has been going on, so too have your lost children fallen from the skies at your hands. Did it never occur to you to ask if this Clan's children and the blood of those lost wanted to return?"

"Of course they wouldn't want to return," Kirwen spat, her dark eyes flashing. But there was a deep sadness welling behind them, fighting against her anger. Or perhaps, alongside her anger. "Mirena's been feeding you lies, feeding you hate. Selling you histories as she wrote them, not as the truth. Hiding your origins. And did you react with joy, Seven Valin, to know that you are now home?"

He pressed his lips together against saying anymore.

"Or did you hide the knowledge from your squadron?" she sneered.

What was done, was done now. No more hiding.

"And what of your lies, Leader Kirwen?" he asked, specifically using her title. "Your own people think that my Clan killed your children when they were taken. No wonder their hatred has only multiplied. They wage a war of righteous vengeance, but it's neither righteous nor truly vengeful. And look, Leader, one of my blood spits upon the idea that I am of her line—her family." He thrust an unerring finger at Elder Lyth, while still addressing Kirwen. "You manipulated us into learning the truth. What did you expect to happen? That she would open her loving arms to me? One of the Cog scum that has been fighting against her and her people? One of the very men who has been building engines of war to murder her friends and family?"

Kirwen took a trembling step toward him, her expression so terrifying in its fury that Valin had to swallow around the lump of fear in his throat. She could strike him and that would be his end.

"All of you little babes are so shortsighted," she said. "After only four generations, no one wanted to hear the truth. The rally cry of taking back our children was lost in the din of time, no matter how I insisted, no matter that I was their Leader. All the Elders of this Clan held a Ceremony of the Dead for our children. Because after that much time, the ones taken from us were indeed dead. No one cared about the children's children. No one cared about the blood—the families—that were still from us." Pain etched itself across her features, fighting with the rage for dominion. "But I remember when you short-lived all forget. I remember what she stole. I remember my own granddaughter being taken, how she wept for her mother. My little one, my darling, and I stood there, passing her weeping to one of the Cog Clan women come to take them. My belly raging in humiliation and helplessness and hunger, knowing that she would be fed, would survive. But I vowed, I swore to all the deities that might listen, that she would return to me. To my daughter."

Valin's breath was stolen from him. The shock of her words rocked truths so long held within him that he could only croak them in protest. "Inventrixes...can't have children. It's physically impossible."  

She cast him a bitter smile, and laughed. "My predecessor designed me so I was never truly an Inventrix. Including that."

He shook his head in denial.

Kirwen's voice dropped into a hoarse whisper. "Even your bloodline name mocks me. She had been the seventh child born to the Lyth that year, and I had teasingly called her Seven. My little granddaughter loved her nickname more than her true heart-name." Her eyes watered, her mouth trembling in a way that made Valin's chest ache in sympathy. "My Morra. My little Seven."

Valin had nothing to say. Here was the name of his line's Originator. No, not truly. If he dared to think further back, here was the woman standing before him, his true line's Originator.

"My daughter," croaked Kirwen, "never forgave me for failing to get her back. Morra grew from a five-year-old into a woman without us, living as one of you. And her mother never recovered from the pain of losing her. Even on her deathbed, my aged daughter spat on me, cursing my name until her last breath. And in that, I failed my vow, I failed as a Leader. My purpose, my only reason for being was to protect my people. And I failed."

The silence was oppressive, even with the grinding gears and steady puffs of the assembly line's engines.

Kirwen's expression hardened into fierce determination. "When the battle to come is over, when I am the victor, our children will be reunited with us. In time, we'll be again as one Clan, and the hatred and blood-debts will be forgotten. But I will honor my vow, and perhaps my daughter will forgive me wherever her spirit may reside."

It was Nyru who spoke, voice almost soft, "If what you claim is true, then you'll watch us die fighting. We won't surrender. And I know my line would gladly fly to the sundisk to stop you."

Again that bitter smile. "Xenthi was always proud to a fault. So it seems are her children."

"One thing you haven't considered, Leader," said Valin.

"Oh?" she mocked.

"You haven't asked your Clan whether or not they want their lost children back." Valin listened to the sharp sound of her contemptuous laugh, but he turned to Elder Lyth, who was tapping her cane again to the beat of the assembly line. "What say you, honored elder? Would you welcome one such as me, and all the Seven line, into the Lyth family?"

Elder Lyth's face screwed up, she pursed her lips, and spat on his boots. "To the ten hells with all of you, you wretched, murdering scum."

Kirwen roared, "Enough!"

Shaking, she gestured curtly to Zareth, and jutted her chin at Valin. "Bring him. Then take the others back to their prison after you've searched it thoroughly."

Zareth didn't jab him, but remained at a distance, glaring as they followed after Leader Kirwen, marching up from the oppressive heat of the forge caves and into one of their spiral-filigreed hallways. He could see the manic way that men and women darted to and fro, some carrying necessary equipment, still others with cleaning equipment for the takeoff ledges, moving upward on liftcarts. The Wheelteeth's mountain was a flurry of activity, chaotic and barely organized; a sharp contrast to the orderly forge caves.

Kirwen halted in her marching steps. She shook her head, voice frantic, expression wild. "No, no... I'm coming. Hold on until I arrive."

Without word to his guard, Kirwen sprinted away from them, her legs pumping with a speed no true human could ever match, and was quickly out of sight.

Zareth prodded him and quickly stepped back from Valin's reach. "We still go, scum."

The Lyth man pressed their pace, half jogging after the Leader, when Valin heard a throat shredding scream echo through the hallway. The kind of scream one heard repeated in their memories for many a year afterward; it was the sound of immense anguish torn from the deepest part of the soul.

Valin didn't need to be prodded. He broke into a run and the young Lyth stayed just behind him. When they came around the bend, sunlight from the old windows cut into the rock itself streamed over Kirwen, making the parts of her brass skin glint in the light; she had collapsed to her knees, doubled over in pain, eyes squeezed shut tightly. Her mouth was partly open, and a wretched sound came from her. Sobs, he realized, though there were no tears. Inventrixes didn't weep, but then again—

Slowly, clear tears streamed down her cheeks. And then in a torrent.

Valin stood near her in awkward silence, allowing the woman to deal with her pain. Zareth nervously shifted from foot to foot.

Making certain his movements didn't appear threatening, he knelt at Kirwen's side, aching in sympathy for the woman who was his enemy. But pain was pain, and loss was loss—for he realized what this must be. Zareth lifted his rifle as Valin placed his hand on her shoulder, hoping he was lending her some small bit of comforting weight. He said nothing. He simply sat, wondering if his presence was needed or wanted. When her sobs reached a crescendo, he squeezed lightly, and said, "I'm sorry."

A half sob, half laugh burst from her, a wretched smile on her face. "You are so much like her. My daughter. She would've done the same before the loss warped her."

"I am truly sorry, grandmere." It seemed right to say such a thing, and so he felt no shame in uttering the strange family connection.

Her expression contorted in surprise, eyes distant. For a moment he was certain she would fling his sympathies back at him when her lips curled into a furious snarl. But her bloodshot eyes cleared, and she met his gaze. "The child."

Zefir.

She leaped to her feet and sprinted with that unnatural speed. As he chased after her, Zareth yelled threats at Valin to stop. Not if Zefir was in trouble. Even if the man tried to shoot him—

A flechette bolt pinged on the stone near his feet, and another whizzed by his shoulder to shatter a nearby window. But still he ran.

#

Zefir was floating in a dream he knew instinctively wasn't his own. He wished it were a pleasant one, but somehow he knew it wouldn't end well. When he heard Seren's voice, younger, stronger, his dream-self knew this was one of her memories:

The sheer pain streaming into her body made her cringe. It wasn't her own, of course, but through the open connection—weaker than before, thank the Forge Gods just this once for that—the agony of her mirror's burned body almost made her crumble. Not just physically, as walking to sit at Kirwen's side was a small eternity of hells, but mentally—the pain flayed her mind. It tore at her with bright claws, rending, scattering her thoughts like a wolfling racing through a flock of river blackbirds.

As Zefir worked his way toward consciousness his grasp on the memory was beginning to fail. Desperately, the way one devoid of sleep will fight to stay sleeping, he tried to remain with her. She wasn't dead, wasn't gone, she was alive, her sensations and thoughts so clear.

And now awake, he was struck with pain—not Kirwen's pain of being burned, but his own. Voices changed from muffled and watery to distinct and razor sharp; Ferrei was speaking, an unusual note of alarm in her voice.

"You need to step back. You can't...no. No. What did I say?" And then he heard her feet scuffle. "Back I said. Don't touch him."

"Why?" chirruped a bewildered voice. "I can help, yes. I can. Not sleeping, no."

Zefir opened his eyes, the light lancing through to his aching head forcing him to squint.

Ferrei stood between his prone body—gods and hells, he'd fallen on a wing and it was stiff and numb—and his sibling. The sibling-dragon was standing now, cocking her head this way and that, bobbing like a curious bird. Her spiraling horns gleamed bright, her ears swiveling toward him as he stifled a groan. Those bright violet-eyes blinked and she smiled such a harmless smile at him that he ignored the pain in his head to return the smile.

"See?" said his sibling. "Not sleeping. I said as much. But you didn't listen, small thing." She snorted a puff of air at the Second Leader. "I can help."

"Don't take another step, flyer," Ferrei warned.

Not that the Second Leader could stop her if she chose to harm Zefir. So, with slow movements, he rolled himself to his side, placing his hands on the ground and immediately wished he didn't need them to walk. He held his hands to his chest, and groaned.

"Zefir?" Ferrei's face appeared,  practically climbing over his snout, and she looked down into his eyes in relief. "Sun be praised. I thought you had...I wasn't sure if you can truly..."

"Die?" he croaked.

"Die," repeated his sibling. "Death. The end." She frowned in a way that also made Zefir clamp down on a bitter laugh, for she was obviously pondering her words and their meaning with a hefty, childish weight. "Lifeless..."

When Zefir had awoken to life, the words had already been in his mind, but he didn't know how to speak them properly, or how to arrange them in sentences. Mother had instructed him for almost three weeks before could speak properly. So it seemed that his sibling was far advanced of his infancy, and could already make herself understood.

He peered at her horns and her claws, knowing that Seren had sworn not to give her creation any of Zefir's battle traits; but her horns twisted gracefully above her, blunt, not deadly at all, and he noticed a small puff of air come from the top; her crystalline claws were sharp, but they were small things, barely inches long. Her wings were folded elegantly against her back, but he could tell that her wings were so long that they were folded four times, the bones of her wings thinner, lighter, and oddly jointed.

"I can help," she said again hopefully.

"My sibling," Zefir rumbled as amiably as he could manage. "Yes, you can help me. Gather the bandages on the far table—"

"No, not bandages. Not for you." She shook her head in exasperation, and another puff of air came from her spiraling horns. "I can help keep the pain away."

She held up her right hand and a strange metallic liquid glinted from within her claws; he realized that her claws were hollow, and she made a concoction within her body and was extruding it through her those hollow-tipped claws.

"Poison," Ferrei warned, placing up her fists.

Zefir shook his head slightly, but even that pained him. "No...it's not."

Zefir tried to sit up as well as he could, but his sibling sprang at him, ignoring Ferrei's fists as the Second Leader struck at her. Those violet-eyes were searching the extent of his wounds and holding her claws over his chest; the shimmery liquid fell on one of the burns. The liquid stung, and then became numb. A sigh escaped from him.

"See?" said his sibling, lifting her broad wings to keep Ferrei at bay. "I'm good at repair. Does it still hurt?"

Oh, how he loved Seren even more for this. Not a battle dragon, not at all. To repair or destroy. And his sibling was made to repair. How he wished Seren were here, how he wanted to hear his lost friend's easy laugh of bright joy and wonder.

He knew what Seren would've said to him: Of course, dear dragon, I would make her to heal.

"Hands," he said, holding them out.

She sniffed at his hands with the studious intensity of one taking her job seriously, then more of the metallic liquid dripped over his throbbing hands; he watched as the liquid settled into some of the burn holes in his pseudo-metallic flesh, solidifying, much in the way Mother's repair-gel had helped regrow flesh from the gash in his side.

"Thank you," he said softly, and she grinned at him, bobbing her head. "But can you...repair burns on humans?" At the quizzical tilt to her head, he clarified by touching Ferrei with his tail. "The 'small thing.' They're humans. Can you help repair her too? Her hands are bleeding."

"Oh!" she gasped in such a way that it reminded him of Seren. "Oh, I should've scented the blood. Of course I can. It is more difficult, and I must taste first. But I will help the small thing."

His sibling turned with her unnaturally swift movements—quicker than a river serpent—and she plucked Ferrei up. As the Second Leader stared into those violet-eyes, cursing in surprise, the sibling-dragon's pale brass tongue lolled out of her mouth and she...licked Ferrei's face. Stunned, the Second Leader's cursing cut off in mid "ten hells and demon-shit" when his sibling smacked her lips, thinking.

"No infection, so that's good," the sibling-dragon proclaimed. "I'll make a salve for the burns, and then we really must bandage them."

Zefir's eyelids felt heavy, and a pleasant lack of feeling in his chest and hands made him want to sleep. "What else is in the concoction you gave me?"

"A microcog sedative to make the thoughts in your heart-chamber slow for a brief span of time. You can enter rest modus now, sibling." She set Ferrei down, but still kept one hand on the Second's shoulder. Protectively, Zefir thought. "Sibling. Kin. Family. This is a good thing, is it not?"

"Yes," he said before he closed his eyes. "You're my kin. My family."

"Family," she said wistfully, and then repeated, "You're my kin."

He managed to open a mountain-weighted eyelid and noticed her claws had retracted, but not before leaving a oddly colored salve on the Second Leader's palms. Ferrei stood, clenching her teeth in mistrust; as the salve did its work his Second stared down at her palms in disbelief. His sibling began carefully and expertly bandaging Ferrei's outstretched hands, which were a third of the size of those gentle dragon hands, the dragon humming quietly to herself an eerily familiar tune.

"You're a healer," said Ferrei in a tone of disbelief.

His sibling blinked at her, smiling, revealing small rows of sharp-looking teeth. Ah, so Seren hadn't left her creation fully without some kind of self-defense. "And you're my kin, small thing."

Zefir released a weary chuckle before he fell asleep. 

Read Part 18: Debt of Blood
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