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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: