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Nelai sat behind Dupresh in the longwing flyer in her secondary flight seat, checking and rechecking the gauges, heart pounding. These flyers were newly minted from the forge caves, tinkered and re-tinkered by the first-level techworkers until they hum-ticked perfectly, their smooth brass hides gleaming in the early winter morning light. She peered at each of the four wings, so extensive that she could barely see their tips from her vantage point, but the second pair just below the first pumped downward as the first curved up when Dupresh tested them on the flight ledge. Trainer Jarre called them grassflier wings—what the Wheelteeth apparently called dragonflies—but either way they were light, thin, and astonishingly beautiful.
Gods o' the Forge, don't let me fail and crash this beautiful thing. Not only was it the most elegant technology their Clan possessed, but few of even the most advanced and honored Navigators had flown one. The Inventrix herself had stated to the Council—according to their Trainer—that the longwings were reserved for their new Expeditionary Squadron, and would always be.
Nelai knew that if they failed today, her squadron would bear the shame of it, and all other squadrons that might be in the future; Du would have to go back to his hopeful blood-kind, crushed, Awan would have nothing to go back to, and Nelai would have to tell Mother that she was right all along. Even Tei would have to bear the shame of it.
Dupresh lifted his hand in the signal for: Flight check go.
On the ledge next to them, Tei went through the same flight-checks, and Awan sitting huge behind her called out that all the gauges looked good. Nel couldn't do that with Dupresh, so her friend had taught her the tap-code language that he used to communicate among his kin when working. They'd worried that their Trainer would find out about Du's blood-defect, but he'd known, saying, "While I wish our own Clan would support you, Dupresh, and accept this inborn defect, I fear most won't. You already have much to prove simply based on your blood. One day, I hope it will change. I won't expel you from training, not for this."
They had quite a few observers, not just Navigators on the flight ledges, but a small crowd had gathered on the distant, empty field below. Perhaps Harvesters. Or maybe even Du's blood-kin, for they certainly weren't from the Sevens. And she saw a glint of a brass creature—and knew the battle dragon, Ambassador Zefir was watching. Maybe even her Uncle Valin.
She tapped on Dupresh's shoulder: All systems ready. Flight on mark.
Unlike the hawklings, which were made for single Navs, or even the thopter bombers, which were made with a secondary Nav as backup and as the offloader for the bombs, the newest longwings were designed to distribute some of the flight commands between two. They could be flown singly, but they really shined with two Navigators.
Which why Nelai kept looking to her other side to see who was second to Trainer Jarre.
The Inventrix lifted her voice, "All systems check, Trainer!"
Jarre stood in his seat, his basso voice easily lifting above the sounds of the whirling engines at idle, and the buzz of activity of those attending to the launch cradles—one of whom was Zhandei. "Listen up, Expeditionary Squadron Prime! First Leader Dupresh will take the lead as planned in Flyer One. Second Leader Tei to take position two hundred meters behind in Flyer Two, and the Inventrix and I following at one thousand meters behind them in Flyer Three. Landing location is the grasslands clearing over the Sunset Mountain pass, ten flight minutes beyond. When there, I suggest you set up your tents quickly, because it gets cold this time of year and you don't want to have to re-pitch a tent the next day in the snows and freeze your ass off."
Her squad chuckled, and Dupresh made a gesture of amusement.
Three days of field training in the middle of nowhere, learning how to explore the world.
"If for any reason, either Flyer One or Flyer Two needs to make an emergency landing, they will signal, and the others will land as close as possible. With the winter winds over the pass, we'll ascend to the upper airs." He paused taking their measure with his eyes, before he grinned at them. "Ready Squad Prime?"
Nelai lifted her voice, nearly choking on how excited she was, but she echoed her own squadmates, "Squad Prime ready!"
"Masks latched!" her Trainer crowed, plopping back down into his seat. "Flyer One go!"
Nelai let out a nervous squeak, but she latched her flight-mask, not yet turning on the hand-sized canister to vent purer air into her lungs—that was for ascending in the mountain pass. Her hands were gloved, her red leather flight jacket fur-lined, and her scarf tight against the cold upper airs that might get between her layers.
Dupresh's hands were steady, his movements certain as the longwing flyer's legs lifted, the flight cradle forcing them back, its arms stretching to slingshot them into the air. She heard Zhan's voice call for go, and the Ledge Leader grinned at them.
The force of the flyer shooting forward always made her whoop, but today she laughed as they were suddenly airborne.
The steady buzz-hum of the flyer rattled deep in her bones, vibrating until Nel felt as if she was part of the longwing. She couldn't believe how in syncopation her reactions were to Du's, as if he felt it too, the moment when they both became the flyer itself.
It was midmorning by the time they reached the Sunset mountains, the glow of the sun hiding as she spotted a few darker clouds covering the peaks. The flyer began to buck with the early winter winds howling through the pass, and Dupresh forced the longwing higher, gaining altitude at a steady climb as Nelai readjusted the angle of the downbeat on the lower set of wings.
She spared a moment to look back and see if Tei and Awan's Flyer Two still paced them, and blowing out a relieved breath into her flight mask, she turned on the purer air of the canister—once used to invigorate Navigators for an upcoming fight. And now, flying over the pass, over the great glaciers below, they spotted the snow-dappled grasslands of the valley. They were to land toward the leading edge of the valley's bowl, and—
She squinted through her farviewer goggles. "What in ten hells?"
Du slowed the flyer much too soon, gliding for a matter of two heartbeats. He hesitated at this unexpected sight, and she could see his shoulders tighten.
There. She saw it for certain now. Coming toward their left flank were several small, single flyers. No, only three. But as she adjusted the magnification on her goggles to their utmost, she saw the feather-like wings with their small, rapid downbeats, and the pointed beak-like structure of...of gryphons.
The Wheelteeth. The enemy? No, they were enemy no longer.
Dupresh signed over his shoulder with one hand as best he could. Were we supposed to meet with a delegation from the Wheelteeth?
She tapped out: Trainer would have told us.
He nodded. Signal to Flyer Two to form up. Take our right flank.
Nelai lifted her hand and made certain to make the flight signals, not once but three times as taught. She peered back through her goggles and saw Awan make an affirmative gesture, and Flyer Two's wings buzz-flapped faster, as they gained on Flyer One. She could see Awan signaling to their Trainer—
Dupresh let out a muffled squawk of surprise.
The lead gryphon speared toward them, like a hawk after prey. Its beak-snout opened, and its flechette gun swiveled in their direction.
Nelai hissed, praying to the Forge Gods that this was some secret test her Trainer had put together. It had to be. There was peace now. But the gleaming barrel of the gun moved to track them, and she clenched hard at the controls, her heartbeat a terrified throb in her skull. She cried out as the retort of the large bolt echoed from that maw, and Du jerked the flight controls to the side; the longwing banked hard to the left. Nelai screamed as the bolt sheered through the side of the longwing; the sound of shrieking metal mirrored her own screams.
Dupresh lifted his fist in the signal for: Evasive maneuvers!
It couldn't be. It wasn't. She wanted to put her hands over her ears and block out the sound of their engine chugging, coughing. The world was suspended in this single moment, crystal clear; time hung, and when she swiveled to look for Flyer Two, it seemed to take an eternity. The hornet-buzz of flechettes rained through the sky and that moment of timelessness shattered; her mind refused to focus on the reality of hearing more bolts pierce the body of her flyer; she watched one spear through the metal, the sharp end nearly reaching her thigh—to within a hairsbreadth.
Tei forced Flyer Two to ascend rapidly, the grassflyer wings a blur of motion. But Nelai held her breath as bolts speared through Two's lower wings, turning them into crumpled, shorn masses of useless metal. They could still fly on only the top wings...
Dupresh lifted his hand in the signal for: RETREAT.
But the other flyer stalled, and began to fall, hurtling downward toward the ground; her squadmates managed to keep the flyer from spinning, to keep it even, its remaining top wings stabilizing it on its long descent toward the ground.
Navs call it kissing the ground, she recalled dully.
She felt Dupresh's hand slap her arm. She stared at him in incomprehension. Again, he hit her. Hard. Then he signaled: Vent heat!
Yes, focus on her flyer. On flying. She reached for the controls, hearing the blaring of the warnings, the gauges all swinging wildly. But venting the excess heat would be impossible as the engine's coolant had been pierced, so she focused on redirecting all of the remaining and rapidly dwindling power to the wings as—
One of the gryphons broke from formation to chase after Flyer Two as the longwing flew heavily toward the leading edge of the grasslands, aiming for the edge of the dark forest that bristled at the mountain's foot. And she knew that Du would follow, that their only chance was in landing as close as possible to one another, and then flee on foot into the forest where the gyrphons couldn't track them. She prayed—to the Forge Gods, to the sun if It would listen—that the second gryphon wouldn't open fire. And while it chased them, it didn't open its maw. Nelai didn't know which deities had listened, and didn't care. Her squadmates might have a chance...
Her flyer banked hard to the right, and another round of bolts narrowly missed them when—she heard it, the grinding mechanics of the two left wings. She tried to keep the top left wing going, like a broken bird, but it stuttered and ceased with a hiss. Dupresh cut off the power to the wingbeats completely—and they glided, keeping from a downward spin. It was all they could do—glide downward.
She lifted slightly in her seat to look rearward, hoping to see her Trainer close. He would know how to battle them. Jarre could save them. With what weapons? But the third gryphon had unleashed its bolts on Flyer Three, and she screamed again—this time in fury—to see her Trainer's longwing spiraling from the sky.
When she turned back, the ground was close. And they were falling faster than she thought. Desperately, she released the long, almost horse-like legs of the landing gear. If they could pull up just a fraction, then the legs would take the impact. But more bolts speared against their side, shredding what remained of the pseudo-metal canvas of their wings. Nelai covered her head with her arms, and closed her eyes as the ground rushed toward her.
She was jerked tight against her flight straps, and sharp pain was all along her chest. But she dared to open her eyes only to see her flyer sliding on its belly, the right wings snapping off completely, the landing legs decimated. Soil and grass plumed around her; but she saw them sliding to within a handspan of Flyer Two. The nose bumped against the other downed flyer. Heart in her mouth, trying desperately not to vomit, Nelai forced what bit was left of the left wing to lift up over the heads of her fallen squadmates—she could see Tei and Awan still there. Alive? But at least the bolts would have to sheer through the wing, slowing it, before injuring them.
Dupresh released his flight straps, and grabbing up the pack beneath him, he turned to her. She was staring at him, not understanding. He reached for her, grabbed her cheek, and his eyes bored into hers. His hand signed: Uninjured?
She struggled with the flight straps, and released them. Grab the pack! she thought. They both leaped over the side, and when she hit the ground, she found that pain over her chest again—from the flight straps. Du raced for Flyer Two, and he had clambered up the side when two bolts pierced the wing hovering above them, but Dupresh kept moving.
Awan unstrapped Tei from the flyer, Tei whose face was ashen. And the large Harvester boy lifted her; the Nav girl screamed, trying to muffle it. But Nelai watched in horror as Awan held Tei in his arms and dropped to the ground, seeing the blood covering the girl's right leg.
Forge n' Fire, all the blood.
"Tei's been hit," Awan said, his voice wavering. "The bolt pierced the flyer and into her leg. I had to pull her off of it. Gods, it can't be..."
Du slapped his arm. Can you carry her while we run?
"I...I can carry her, but it'll slow me down. I don't know if I'm fast enough."
Then we need a distraction. Dupresh looked toward the edge of the forest. I'll run at an angle toward the forest. It will take more time to get there. Then once they see me, flying toward me, all three of you run.
Tei was gritting her teeth, breathing hard against the pain. She moaned, "No..."
I'm First Leader, Du signed, his mouth in a firm line. Do as I say.
"You're no Leader, Du," Nelai said, putting her pack on her back. "Not for this. We have to—"
He signed more forcefully: Do as I say.
"God's o' the Forge." Nelai gestured to him. "Give me your pack. I'll carry it. It'll only weigh you down."
If they survived this, their pack had food, water, shelter, and med-kits. She couldn't leave it behind.
But Dupresh either didn't hear her, or chose to ignore it. He bent his knees, looking above, and then without another word sprinted from their precarious cover. Nelai watched, seeing her friend run faster than he'd probably ever had in his life. The gryphons circled overhead, and she heard shot—not the big flechette guns in the beak-maw, but smaller, aeropistol shots coming from the first gryphon.
They can't target him well with the big guns. Or they're out of bolts.
Tei's eyes were riveted to the small cleaner boy as he dodged and zig-zagged. She grimaced, saying, "Let me run on my own. It hurts but I'll—"
"Shut it, Tei," Awan growled. "Think light thoughts."
Nelai tapped his arm as the gryphons were at the farthest point of their flight circle, and she barked, "Run!"
The big Harvester burst from the confines of their downed flyers, Nelai on his heels. With big, ground-eating strides, he ran with Tei bouncing in his arms, and Nelai didn't look up, she didn't dare. Focus only on the dark line of trees, on the brush of snow on their needle-leaves. Focus on running, on the way her breaths puffed in the cold air. She heard the buzz of the gyphons closer now; a hornet-buzz whistled passed her and she heard the flechette bury in the soft ground where she'd been a breath before.
And there—the sheltering canopy of the forest. She felt the air grow cooler as they passed beneath the branches. Awan kept running, fighting to leap over decaying, fallen logs, fighting as the terrain canted uphill. But Nelai stopped at the tree line, and she turned back.
She saw the pack nestled in the grasses. It was all she could see of him. Gods, they shot him! And her legs quivered, but she had to go to him.
"Nelai!" Tei called.
"He's down," she said blankly. "I have to go to him—"
"Listen to me," Tei said emphatically, her eyes burning fever bright. "If he's down, he's gone. We have to keep moving. If they land and come after us..."
"He's not dead!" Nel shrieked. She heard the panic, the near breaking point in her own voice. "I can save him!"
"Damn it, Nel!" Tei was staring at her with those stone-steady eyes. "I'm your Second, and your Second says to move your fucking ass. Understood, wing runner?"
She sputtered, her breaths heaving as if she wanted to vomit. She glared at the small, wiry girl held in Awan's arms, saw the blood from her leg coating the arms of Awan's jacket. Something vile bubbled up from inside of her, and she spat, "You hated him anyway. If you hate me just as much, then let me go to him."
Awan stepped down the slopping hill, his arms trembling; Tei gritted her teeth as she was jostled, but said into the eerie quiet of the forest, "Godsdamn it, Nelai. I don't hate him. I don't hate you either. Come with us. Now."
Awan growled, "Move your ass, wing runner. Do as your Second says."
Another shot from above made Nelai's muscles move.
Together they fled.
The children! The children are down! Jarre felt the impact of the nose of his flyer smashing into the ground, saw the sleek body of his flyer crumple; he heard the Inventrix let out a terrified scream, like the screams of his wounded Wing. Like Arran strapped in the flyer next to him, screaming when the enemy would unload more bolts into the downed flyers and—
His mind whirled as the flyer came to a halt, but he automatically hit the release button for his flight straps; he turned to look at the Inventrix, who was clearly shaken, but unharmed. Gods, she's really a youngling. Already she'd unstrapped herself, grabbing up her pack, and leaping with a large bound to the ground. He followed after her, hunched in the shadow of their wrecked flyer. He saw a Rider-style cam-and-pulley bow on the back of her pack, but it'd do no good to shoot at the gryphon above at the altitude it maintained.
She looked up at him for direction, the fear glinting in those old-but-young obsidian eyes. They were close to the edge of the forest. They could flee there for cover, running around to where the children's flyers were; one thousand meters. Gods, why did he insist on giving them such a lead for their first true flight?
First flight, last flight. No, it wasn't their last, it couldn't be. They were alive, he knew it in his bones; he knew the sun wouldn't take them from him, not even his ambivalent deity would be so cruel.
"Inventrix," he said. "We make for the trees at the gryphon's widest arc."
She nodded, mouth firming like he'd seen her predecessor do.
There was no time to grab his own pack, so he took hers, throwing it over his shoulders. She hunkered down, like children did when racing one another. But her eyes were on her target. No doubt with her heightened Inventrix-senses, she listened for the buzz of the flyer. She barked, "Go!"
He ran beside her, hoping she could keep up. But soon it was apparent that it was she who was fighting to slow to stay with him. He snapped, "Break! Z form!"
They began to zig-zag across the open expanse, and he heard the tell-tale sound of an aeropistol being shot—so the gryphon was out of flyer-sized bolts. The familiar roar of blood pounded through his temples, the old battle-fury transforming his body; it was a heady sensation.
He heard Shiran cry out; a bolt had landed between her feet and she'd had to stop suddenly to avoid it; but she flew faster then, moving with a speed no mere normal Navigator could match. With her Inventrix speed, she made it to cover, and turned to gesture the gryphon's position: Dodge left now!
Without thinking, he followed her direction. He zagged to the left, but fell face first as he felt the bolt slam into his back; not his flesh, no pain. The bolt had hit the pack on his back. Jarre scrambled to his feet, his breath ragged in his throat. But he made it to cover, and turned with the Inventrix as she continued on—toward the children.
They're alive. They're alive.
He kept that chant going in his mind as they ran.
Nelai couldn't feel her feet anymore; they were numb stumps, her legs like flatbread dough. It was getting harder to see as they went deeper into the steep terrain, the canopy tight overhead, blocking them from sight above, but also blocking the sun. Ahead of her, Awan stomped forward like one dead, his breaths shaky, but he still held Tei in his arms. Though she'd ordered him, he refused to put her down.
"There," Tei said, pointing.
Nelai could see the mouth of a cave, dark and secluded. It would be as safe a place as any to stop and rest. Together they trudged into the cave, smelling the distant, faint musk of some predator that had made it a home long ago. They moved to the back of the cave, and Awan nearly collapsed to his knees as he set Tei gently down on the cold stone.
With the med-kit she dug from her pack, Nelai moved to Tei, assessing the wound as she'd been taught as a techie—with logic and facts. She saw that the bolt had left a hole, but had thankfully missed major arteries near the knee. Even still, Tei had lost a good amount of blood, and would be weak until she recuperated. Numbly, Nelai ripped at the cloth around the wound, and began to stitch the wound closed.
He's dead, she thought numbly, letting her fingers do their automatic work. He's dead and I just left him there to die.
She was beyond feeling that tight sensation in her chest, the shaky breaths of needing to cry. There was only the numbness. Her eyes remained dry. Her hands began to shake, but Tei remained quiet, her eyes haunted.
Slowly, Tei reached out to still Nelai's trembling. "It's okay, Nel. We're safe. We made it and we're safe."
"Don't lie to me like a little child, Second Leader." Her voice sounded hollow. Dead. "Not all of us made it. And we still might not."
Awan had his head bowed, his eyes closed. "We'll get through this..."
Facts. Fact would save her techworker mind in the way it was bred to do. Assess the situation, focus only on the cold logic. "Tei is injured. You can't keep carrying her, Awan, so we must remain here. There's no way to get back home, and no one will go looking for us until after three days have passed. There's no way to salvage the flyers, even if we could make it back to the clearing and the gryphons weren't patrolling that area. We have enough food in our packs to last us one of the three days, but the Inventrix was supposed to teach us how to forage. And we've only one pack."
"We can ration," said Tei, watching Nelai's fingers do their work.
Awan pressed the heel of his hand against his eyes, shaking his head. "It'll get cold tonight, but we can't light a fire or they'll find us. They'll find us, gods, they'll find us."
"Wing runner," Tei said quietly, but with firmness. "Look at me, Awan."
Slowly, the big Harvester took his palms from his eyes, those eyes bloodshot.
"They're not going to find us, not if we're clever." She gestured to the cave and the space around them. "We'll set alarms around the perimeter, that way we'll know if they approach."
Nelai smeared some of the healing-gel on the wound, hoping it wouldn't suppurate or they would have other problems. Her mind still chewed at the puzzle the situation presented, when a realization clicked into place. "The question is: why did they attack us in the first place?"
Her squadmates stared at her.
"Why would the Wheelteeth attack us?" Nelai continued. "We're on our own lands, but nowhere near Wheelteeth territory. We're unarmed. So, why go after us? And how did they know where to find us?"
Tei gritted her teeth as the gel stung. "Because they wanted to break the peace."
"I don't think so," Nel said, thinking. "If that were the case, why not attack our flyer scouts? Or Rider scouts? Why not assault our home itself? The expeditionary squadron is nothing to them. They have nothing to gain from this."
"They're the Wheelteeth," Awan snarled. "Does the enemy need a reason to hate us?"
"But why us specifically?" Nelai countered.
Tei gasped, and it wasn't because of her wound. "Maybe they're not Wheelteeth."
Awan stared at her in confusion. "They fly gryphons—"
"But anyone can fly them," Nelai finished. "Who else but our own people would know that we were flying, much less to which location? Only our Trainer and the ledge Navs knew where we were going. Not even our own blood-kin know."
"Sun preserve us." Tei halted Nelai's hand as she moved to bandage the wound. "What Navs would do this to us? Why? There's no honor in it, not for any of the blood."
Nel snatched her hand away. "I don't know if you noticed, Second, but there are more Navs that hate me, Awan and Du—not you, because you have the blood—than support or ignore us. Even you hate us."
"Godsdamn it," Tei muttered, and her grip on Nelai's hand grew tighter. "I don't hate you, Nelai. And I don't hate, Dupresh. I hated what I thought you were all taking from me, because I thought I had some right to this while you didn't. And I said mean things, because I thought I was...better. But I'm not better than you. And I'm not better than Dupresh. What he did..."
Something trickled through the numbness, and Nelai had to look away, knowing what true shame felt like. It gnawed at her, breaking through the lack of feeling, and she desperately fought against it.
Tears fell down Nelai's cheeks, and she hated them, angry that she was weeping like a weak little child. Angry at everything, at the memory of seeing Du's pack lying there in the middle of the battleground, knowing he was hurt.
"I'm sorry, Nel," said the Nav girl, clinging tighter to her hand. "I'm sorry I said those things. I'm sorry I led you to believe I hated you." Tei's eyes were bright in the darkness of the cave. "But we're squad. I won't leave you. Squadmates don't leave one another."
Nelai wanted to wipe away the cursed tears on her face, realizing she would smear the Nav girl's blood over her skin if she did so. But she began sobbing, and couldn't stop. "But I left Du there...and he's gone. I let him die! I should've..."
The older girl embraced her fiercely, until the bruises the flight straps left ached. But Nel didn't care. She grasped desperately at Tei, letting her body wrack itself with the sobs that wouldn't be contained. Slowly, the sobs stopped, and her eyes had no more tears to give.
Awan was watching the entrance of the cave, but Nel could see the glint of tears glistening on his own cheeks. He rose tiredly to his feet, riffled in their one pack and drew out the long hunting knife. "Later I'll sing for him...for our Trainer too. That's what my kind does when we...lose people."
"So do we," Tei said, letting go of Nelai. Her expression hardened. "Navigators also sing when the battle is won." She shook her head, but put her hand to her forehead, perhaps dizzy. "To task, Squad Prime. We'll set alarms."
Nelai helped Tei to her feet, but the Nav girl waved Awan away. She hobbled out of the cave, grabbing Nel's pack.
Jarre looked above and there were no gryphons circling; he raced from cover toward the crumpled wrecks of the longwings. He was eating his own heart, the panic nearly overwhelming. Merciful sun, don't let me find them...gone. Not like this. I don't know if I can survive that.
Without slowing he bounded up the side of Flyer One...and it was empty. Clambering over the bent wing to Flyer Two, he saw blood splattered over the inside of the first flight seat, and his eyes watered, before the panic twisted inside of him, becoming something hotter, more destructive. He slammed a fist down on the tortured pseudo-metal of the wing and heard it groan.
Shiran was below him, her cam-and-pulley bow out and arrow nocked, scanning the sky. "They made a run for it?"
"There's blood..." Jarre gritted his teeth as the rage grew inside, scorching his mind.
She put the arrow back in its quiver and slapped the bow back on its mechanical holster across her pack, and then in two graceful, feline-like bounds she was up on the flyer. She scratched the dried blood with a finger and then brought it up to her lips. Jarre gasped as she tasted the blood. "Tei. It's her blood. But not enough to suggest that she—"
"Don't say she's dead, Inventrix. Don't you dare."
"I don't think she is. Not from this." Shiran peered around at the sky, before she turned back to the flyer. She touched the flechette bolt that had speared through the side of the machine, and ran her fingers across the unbloodied end, brows pressed in confusion.
Jarre felt as if he were being immolated from within, and again he felt old hatreds rise to the surface; the same as when, long ago after the loss of his Wing, he begged the sun to kill all of the Wheelteeth Navs, even knowing that asking such a thing was the deepest kind of blasphemy. "If I have to murder these fucking Wheelteeth with my bare hands, Inventrix, I will. This...this attack—"
"It isn't the Wheelteeth," said his Inventrix calmly.
He blinked at her, the fire within stuttering. "But they attacked with gryphons."
"We have captured ones in storage," Shiran said. "The composition of this bolt here—" and she gestured to the flechette coated in Tei's blood, "—is from our forges. The Wheelteeth tech forges could never make their weaponry as well as ours, and I'd know the composition of our own anywhere. I can smell it, for godssakes."
Were she anyone other than his Inventrix, he might have questioned her. But the rage-fire inside died, turning to that cold fear again. "Dear sweet sun, those were our own people?"
Her eyes were darker than he'd ever seen, and she no longer appeared the young girl; those eyes held knowledge and saw the world in terms he couldn't fathom. "Those three Navs tried to start the war again. You saw it, the second gryphon didn't attack. The children were meant to escape back home with news that the Wheelteeth had attacked, had killed their Trainer and Inventrix. But something in their plan went wrong. Perhaps they only meant to put a few holes in the flyers, but they downed them instead."
Jarre met the dark fury in her gaze. "If their plan had worked, the war would not only renew, but it would rage on for centuries again."
Her mouth firmed into a tight line, and for a moment Jarre saw the rage of her predecessors stamped into her youthful features. "Gods help those traitors, because when I find them..." Her eyes turned inward, and he had no doubt that each scenario of vengeance played through her mind with Inventrix logic and rapidity.
The fact that she didn't voice what she would do made a chill travel down Jarre's spine.
"We move," Jarre said. "The children are clever. They'll look for shelter. Some place they can't be seen from above."
For a moment he wondered if her stare would turn him to cinders, but he knew the rage wasn't aimed at him. "If she's still bleeding, I can track Tei's blood. My senses are better than the Tamer's wolves. One of the benefits of my kind, Third Leader."
He paused. Yes, this was battle. No longer was he Councilor. Or even Trainer.
She leaped to the ground and waited until he landed beside her. "For all my knowledge, I'm young, Jarre. While I've even seen battle from afar, I've never lived it. In this, I'm not your Inventrix. For now, I'm merely one of your underlings. If you order, I'll follow."
He nodded firmly, and moved out. As he walked, he scanned the grasslands, seeing something nestled in the distance. Without a word, he sprinted out, but he heard her pacing behind him. Now, he thought he saw what it was. A pack. Running faster, he knelt in the grass.
Just a pack that had fallen.
Shiran had her bow out once more. "It's Dupresh's pack. And the footprints lead away from the scent of Tei's blood."
The boy had been using himself as a diversion. The fire within had banked low to a steady, focused heat. The rage would keep him going when all else seemed lost.
"Who should we track?" asked his Inventrix. "Or should we split up?"
They could split up, but he feared that was yet another path to disaster. No matter what she said, Shiran was Inventrix, though she was more than capable of defending herself—a creature reborn faster and stronger than any normal person. But if Shiran was killed, even if he returned with the children and his claims of treachery from within, some may not believe him. The war would begin anew.
The Clan needed their Inventrix.
"We stay together." And though his stomach wrenched, he knew from experience he couldn't second guess his decisions. "We follow Tei's blood. Awan and Nelai are likely with her."
Leaving Dupresh on his own. Sun save them all.