Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Coloring Books!


I'll admit that for a long time I've been buying Dollar Store coloring books to just color in, or add extra scenes in. And with the recent boom in coloring books and mandalas for adults, I have to believe that there were way more people out there either doodling in the margins while taking notes during that business meeting, and then coloring them later (ahem, I have a couple of red and pink pens I've wound up with at the Day Job, for you know, like, totally legit business reasons, yeah that's the ticket), or like me was using their cheapo Dollar Store-type colored pencils and coloring books.

But why are they so popular?

I've read all around the interwebs that coloring helps reduce stress. At a point where I was quite overwhelmed with a variety of things in my life I didn't think I could control, I turned to my usual stress relievers: playing ukulele, smashing the hell out of my drum set, busting out my cans of spray paint and making space-art, and just free writing. But none of them seemed to be working.

Playing music was frustrating me. I hated everything I painted. I wound up staring at a blank page and nothing flowed, making me feel like a failed writer. Hell, I started jogging for health reasons and for stress relief, which helped a little, but still didn't seem enough (my brain finds jogging very boring).

The day I bought a coloring book for adults was the one and only time where I had absolutely no thought or concern in my head other than this needs to be blue, no—wait. Royal blue, not sky blue. Before I knew it an hour had gone by without me realizing it. I did feel calmer, but not in the same way you feel calm after, say, taking a nap. It felt different than the other creative stuff I turn to feel relaxed.

All the difficult parts of creating art are already done for you in coloring books. The outline is there. All you have to do is actively choose colors. I tend to shade while I'm coloring. I also actively try to choose colors opposite from what I think they should be:

This deer's antlers? Make them blue.
The trunk of this tree? Shades of green.

I feel like the point of these calming mental exercises is also to think differently than you normally do, or how you're told to think about color itself, to find that inner child who made the sun a bright red-pink. There's no one to judge you for it. Seriously.

I've been working on Animorphia, a coloring book which tickles my sense of the surrealistic absurd.

That and you have an excuse to buy shiny PENS! Pencils! ALL THE SHINY! Ahem. I've been using my watercolor pencils, but am looking into pens. Any suggestions?
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Friday, November 11, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #35: Epilogue


Zefir lay on his accustomed ledge in the Inventrix's laboratory, the pipes beneath the mountain warming the rock and seeping into his mechanical bones. He lifted his head, staring down at the Navigators flying with Innari. Shiran's new flyers, these able to reach farther distances than even the most remote of the Lesser Clans, far beyond what was familiar, could keep up with Innari's long wings and great endurance. Though none of them were sentient, the Navigators flew them true.

Shiran had said, "Our Navigators were once explorers. See here, Zef? I've added to the histories all of the information my predecessors had hid. Our true past. Hopefully this knowledge will give our people new purpose."

In peace.

Now, the young Inventrix stretched from hunkering over her work, her ten-and-six year old body bouncing back from the discomfort quickly. Zefir still found it difficult sometimes to look at her, remembering when the Three had appeared at such an age when going through the Trial. But her eerie rapid growth had slowed this year, and now Zefir sniffed at her familiar scent. That at least was unique enough. The scent of oil, grease, and metal, but with an underlying smell of her odors—like freshly baked flatbread when she helped in the kitchens, or the mud of the river when she helped with the rice planting.

The Cog Clan was still getting used to their Inventrix being part of their daily lives, socializing, and assisting in the smallest of places.

She threw on her leather flight jacket, and padded across the stone. "That Navigator of yours is late."

Zefir cocked his head, listening. "He's coming."

He nudged at her and she threw her arms around his nose, just like the other young Navs did when he came to visit them. She placed a sweet kiss on his dragon-shaped lips, and as always he puffed a warm breath at her, making her grin when her wild halo of dark hair ruffled at the air movement. "Oh, I know. I can hear just as well as you, Zef."

Zefir came to his feet and stretched his wings, before laying them flat against his back once more. "Council matters usually have him running behind."

"That I'm all too aware of," she said wryly. "Ah, but I left him an easy lock to pick."

Zefir grimaced. "He hates when you give him one too easy."

She chuckled in a way that reminded him of Seren, but he tried to put the similarity from his mind. But Seren had never smiled quite like Shiran. "I know. That's why I did it. Plus, it seems easy at first, but there's a second layer—"

The door locks began to slide open, the gears shifting in place; the door opened on its mechanical hinges and Valin strode inside, wearing the new uniform of the Council. His Nav tugged at the high collar, undoing the green and black buttons, sighing in relief. "The second layer was clever, Shiran. But are you clever enough to convince the Council that these bedamned uniforms are wretched?"

Zefir regarded his Navigator, thinking on how well he looked in that 'wretched' uniform. Elder Lyth often joked that he was getting fat on the flatbread she gifted to him every time the Council of the Cogs met with the Wheelteeth Elder Council. Valin was anything but. He'd gained back lean muscle, his skin glowing in health. The scar on his cheek was a puckered, shiny bit of skin that jumped whenever he frowned, and danced whenever he laughed. He wore it well.

The Inventrix waved away his mild complaint. "Hurry and put on your flight gear! We'll be late."

Sometimes Shiran still sounded like an eager girl-child, and it always made Zefir chuckle, happy that she was able to be both Leader and growing child.

Valin eagerly traded his green-and-black Council jacket for his well worn flight jacket, patched in half a dozen places with off colored material. He nodded to her with a grin, and in two steady leaps he was in his rightful place behind Zefir's Nav panel. Shiran, no less graceful and quick as bird, took one bounding leap and settled herself just behind Valin.

Zefir launched himself from the ledge and gloried in the simple joy of flight, and Valin's steady hand at the Nav panel as they flew for the Burned Stone.

He could see Jarre leap to the ground from his landed longflight flyer, its huge brass-colored wings contracted at rest, its body flechette sleek. And next to it was Ferrei and Innari, his sibling sending him a thought-greeting with her customary joy.  

The Quarethstras, both in their own Council green-and-black, were already moving for the edge of the stone, waving a greeting to Elder Lyth and Atsuke Xei. As Zefir watched, Daimo came trotting forward from the vast expanse of the forest around them, carrying his constant companion, Qinethi Rhin, who also seemed uncomfortable in her new Council uniform. She often seemed to shrug her shoulders, looking for the old familiar feel of her bow—but she no longer carried it.

So many were gathered together from both Clans that Zefir had to sniff against that pressure behind his eye. But even more he could see how many were not present, perhaps still chaffing at the new peace, remembering only their old hatreds.

Shiran slid from his back, and bounded forward before collecting herself, trying to appear more of a Leader and less of an untried girl. She reached into her jacket pocket and withdrew a hand-sized contraption with letters stamped on it.

Elder Lyth needed help across the slick black glass, and Valin hurried forward to assist her. Those familiar hands settled on his arm, and she smiled at him in her wry, knowing way. "Mayra has been asking after you."

Valin chuckled. "Nonsense, grandmere. She's asking after Zefir. He takes her flying when you're not looking."

"A natural Nav, that one," said Zefir, grinning. "Our Navs are always saying a first flight should be around her age—what? Ten-and-three now?"

Orenna Lyth nodded reluctantly, for she was overly protective of her young charge. "I'm not certain if she's old enough to take part in this 'exploration' Navigator Wing you're throwing together, though it's all she talks about. I know you've had interest from both Clans, which is good, but my little Mayra is still too young."

When they reached Shiran, both of the Clan Leaders inclined their heads to one another in respect.

Shiran nodded to Zefir, and Zefir arched his neck in an S, keeping his head at a proud, ceremonial angle. To those assembled on either side of the Stone, the Clans still keeping a firm, delineated separation, Zefir spoke, "There are more names of those lost than can truly be counted. But today, from both sides, we will memorialize our lost ones by forever etching their names in the stone of obsidian. And in peace, those names will no longer be separated by Clan, but laid to rest amongst one another."

There was solemn silence around him, and he gestured to the Council members. He met the gaze of his family members, loving Ferrei's serious nod, Jarre's indefatigable grin, and Innari's glowing thought-voice.

His squad, now and forever.

Shiran placed the device in Valin's hand. "Type in the name you wish to memorialize, and place it on the rock."

Valin, with his techie mind, quickly used his thumbs to depress each letter, then kneeling he placed it on the stone. In the upper most corner the device made cutting noises, and when Valin removed the device there was a name etched into the stone itself: Kerlan Nyru.

Ferrei knelt next: Kerlan Denaru.

Then came the name of Elder Lyth's mate. Xei's father. Jarre's entire lost Wing. Soon, a line made of both Clans intermingled, each placing a new name down on the stone.

Zefir touched Shiran with his nose, blinking back the sensation in his eye. "Can we...?"

They had previously discussed whether or not such a thing would be proper, but Shiran nodded now. "Yes, Zef. If you mourn them, then their names belong on the stone."

After the line had thinned, Shiran took up the device and knelt: Mirena. Seren. Kirwen.

He heard his Navigator move to stand beside him, and Valin placed a hand on his shoulder.

Zefir took in all of the names of the fallen, closed his eyes, and was finally able to mourn. 
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The Clockwork Dragon #34: The Duel


Zefir knew somehow that Rhin was speaking to him, shouting over the roar of the wind. He didn't even know where he was flying. Everything was agony. He felt as if he were blind, as if pumping his wings were a foreign concept. But he'd saved the Rider. He clutched her tighter to his chest. He'd saved one. One of thousands. His people would all die. After the duel, they would all die; there would be the final battle, people from both Clans giving their all. To the sundisk, to the eternal forge, and he could stop none of it.

And now he could barely fly.

Again came Rhin's voice, but it was no more than a distant buzz. Slowly, he became aware of a glint of silver, and when he arced his neck down, he spotted the silver coghorse galloping below him, easily keeping pace with Zefir's weakened gliding.

He lifted Rhin closer. And heard her. "Follow Daimo!"

He followed after the coghorse, and nearly lost him when Daimo galloped into the outskirts of a thick expanse of dark trees, but when there was a break in the canopy, he spotted the silver horse again. Daimo let out a shrill whinny, and surged ahead. Zefir, too exhausted and in pain, could no longer keep aloft. Slowly, he sank toward the ground, and tucking in his wings, dove through the canopy and turning, holding Rhin up, crashed into the ground. His chest scraped along the ground until his momentum stopped, and the ruined flesh there made him long to scream, but he had not the breath or energy to unleash it.

He felt the Rider wriggle from his outstretched grip and shout, "Daimo!"

Zefir closed his eyes. But he heard the sounds of mechanical hoofbeats, and the coghorse skidded to a stop very near Zefir's head.

Then there was a new voice, tight with surprise, "Oh, no."

Zefir opened his eyes and looked up into a child's face. Her wild hair puffed around her smooth face, but a face that looked oddly familiar. Out of habit, he sniffed at her, making a sight-sound-scent profile for her—

It was too familiar.

"You're another one of them," Zefir growled.

"Dear gods, what has she done to you?" The little girl leaped gracefully from the large coghorse's back, and knelt next to his head.

Zefir glared at her, this aberration. When she moved to touch him, he growled, "Don't you dare lay a hand on me, you blood-ridden mirror."

Her hand halted and she sat back on her ankles. "I swear to you, I won't touch you unless you grant me permission."

"Why are you here?" Zefir asked, still glaring. But even his disgust took too much energy. "Are you some replacement for Seren?"

"No, dear dragon—"

"Don't call me that," he snapped.

Understanding lighted in those familiar eyes. "I'm sorry, Zefir. There will be many similarities between me and the three. And I don't have the time to apologize for them all. In essence, I'm all three of them, and yet neither. If that makes sense."

Zefir forced himself from his side, and reached out with his mind, fearful on touching her virul-cogs—

"I'm not possessed of those, either," said the child softly. "I know this will be difficult, but I need you to trust me."

Zefir began laughing, and by gods it hurt worse than Mother's dagger slicing through his flesh, but he couldn't stop himself. "The Three have torn my world apart. Kirwen tried to control me, Seren almost broke me, and Mother just tried to kill me. And you want me to trust those parts of you?"

"There are other parts, Zefir. Parts that you admire. And even love." She looked deep in thought, but her eyes never strayed from his. "There are some parts of me that continue in the blood, and yet others that are of experience. But know that I'm my own person. My experiences are not theirs."    

"Then, little mirror, why should I trust you?"

She regarded him with such earnestness that he had to look away. "Because you have no one else."

His hands clenched in the dirt, his claws digging through the needles littering the forest floor. "That sounds like Kirwen manipulating me."

She shrugged, and that surprised him to see such a nonchalant gesture. "Not manipulation, Zefir. Simply the truth stately plainly. You are wounded and in need of an Inventrix. The dagger buried in your Navigator panel...you're lucky you were able to fly this far, even gliding. There are only two Inventrixes, and one of them is the one that hobbled you. The other stands before you."

How like Kirwen she sounds. Zefir wanted to close his eyes again, but kept his gaze trained on her. "Why would you help me?"

"Because you're in pain," she said with the kind of simple honesty that reminded him of Seren. "The inventor's need to repair isn't as all consuming as with the others, but it's there. Even still, I'd like to think that were you human I'd still try to heal you."

He was close to giving in to either not caring, or simply falling into a deep rest mode so like the state when he'd opened his panel. "Who do you side with?"

Her little round mouth firmed in a line, an expression that looked oddly adult on such a face. "I side with peace. This conflict has taken far too much. Breeding for war isn't our Clan's purpose. Watching this all is..." Her brow wrinkled in pain, making the baby fat flesh crease. It somehow made her look truly young. Inexperienced. "I want to right the wrongs of the last four centuries. From Varess to now. And if to do that means more violence, then I...I'm not certain if I can."

Zefir was weary, and slowly he gave her the barest nod of respect. "You'll do so if necessary."

It seemed those words wounded her deeply. "The words of a child born in war."

The agony made his chest grow tight, and he was certain darkness beckoned. "Words of experience, Inventrix."

Zefir closed his eyes when he felt a gentle nudge. He opened a mountain-weighted eyelid and saw the coghorse peering at him. "You need to give Shiran permission to heal you. You told her not to touch you, and she'll respect that. So you must say the words, dragon."

"Daimo," Zefir said, opening his other eye. He took in the sight of the fellow mechanical, marveling that the coghorse's joints were far more efficient than his own, which even now felt aflame. The ripples of his silver mane—like hair-thin pseudo-metallic wire—puffed as he move to nudge Zefir again with his soft nose. "Do you trust your creator, little coghorse?"

The horse snorted, and his deep voice sounded assured, "Absolutely. The littlest Rider has given me no cause to think her untrustworthy. She sticks to what she says."

"That too," said Zefir wryly to the Inventrix, "must be in your blood."

"Perhaps," said the child Inventrix mildly. She glanced up as Rhin came toward her, and he could see the Rider had unstrapped her bow from its holster and was even now prowling about. "There's little time, Zefir. Will you allow me to help you?"

Perhaps what she said was true. The little Inventrix was her own person.

"Yes," he said.

The Inventrix rose to her feet without any of the grace of an adult, looking purely like an ungainly child. Daimo rested his chin on her shoulder, and she patted him, the look of joy on her face so like Mother's expression when Zefir awoke for the first time; he wanted to close his eyes against it.

"Daimo, my dearest," she said. "I'll need to take a few parts from you in order to help Zefir. The loss of them will be uncomfortable. Painful if you overexert yourself. Are you willing?"

"Of course," the horse said without hesitation.

Zefir blinked at that. "You barely know me."

The horse gave a toss of his head. Perhaps his equivalent of a shrug. "You need it more than me. Why would I say no?"

Zefir started weeping again, hating that he did so. In between cold breaths, he said, "You sound like I did long ago when I was just a child."

"Then you were a lot smarter long ago when you were just a child," stated Daimo with that innocent bluntness.

Laughing hurt. It hurt more than he could ever describe, but he laughed as the little Inventrix climbed up to his Navigator panel. He was laughing as she carefully took the blade from his flesh; he chuckled lowly as the darkness and the pain took him.

#

Innari descended, and Valin tapped on Ferrei's shoulder and signed: No sighting. Land. But his Second shook her head. He wasn't certain if that was her denial as Second or Innari's virul-cog refusal to Ferrei.

Sitting on Innari's back felt strange, and he could feel her mechanical muscles flex with her flight, her long wings looking even longer and more graceful from his vantage point. Ferrei had quickly cobbled together a suitable harness, which the little dragon had complained of itching until she gathered the true reason for wearing it—so all three of her kin could fly with her. Valin was certain that her speed was but half of her normal, but even that was impressive. He wished Zefir were here, for he'd certainly cajole his dragon about no longer being the fastest thing in the sky.

"He must be around here," Innari said, growling. "He can't have flown this far. He was hurt, the great blood-ridden fool."

Jarre chuckled behind Valin, and Valin was amused to hear that the moon dragon had learned a bit of cursing from his Third. Just like Zefir had. But Jarre tapped Valin on the shoulder, and when Valin turned he caught sight through his farviewer goggles of what his Third spied. A small squadron of gyphon fighters, these with beaks open but devoid of their deadly flechette guns. At the head of the V was the familiar wolf mask.

Kirwen's convoy, headed for the Burned Stone. For the duel.

"We should follow them!" Jarre bellowed over the wind.

Innari craned her head to glare at him, her ears flat against her brass head. "Not until we find Zefir-sibling."

"But Zefir may be at or near the Burned Stone," Valin said at a normal tone, knowing that the dragon could hear it over the wind as she slowed to a gentle glide. "If he found his Mother—our Inventrix—then it is likely he travels with her."

Because there's no way he could convince her otherwise.

Innari's angry rumble shook Valin's bones, rattling inside him. "When I see my sibling again, I'm going to tell him what a fool he was for leaving us behind."

"We'll do so together!" Ferrei barked.

Innari descended toward the Burned Stone, and Valin saw the Cog Clan's Riders atop their gleaming brass coghorses, as weaponless as the Wheelteeth gryphons. The Inventrix rode at their head, still wearing the very same judge's regalia, and she lifted her hand to call a halt. When Innari delicately backwinged to land on the third side around the plateau, away from the forces, Valin watched Kirwen dismount from her gryphon, and the Wolf walked to the top of the plateau. Her Navs cheered behind her, lifting their hands into fists, faces creased in hopeful glee. Valin was surprised to see one of the Navs, Atsuke Xei, help a tottering Elder Lyth from a well-padded seat on one of the gryphons. Head raised proudly, the Elder moved with Atsuke at her side to stand at the edge of the Burned Stone.

The Wolf in her mourning, blood-spattered white stood, crossing her arms as if this were all unimportant to her. Mirena urged her own coghorse to bound toward her mirror, its hooves striking the obsidian, breaking it in places until glass shards fell around it. Mirena leapt from its back and the horse continued to run into the crowd of Wheelteeth.

Valin paced closer, hearing that his squad followed behind; Jarre made a harrumph noise, and Ferrei caught up to him, glaring at the two mirrors.

Kirwen held her dagger before her, the very same blade with which she'd killed Zareth. The rage contorted her expression into something inhuman. "Come my mirror. Come. Let's end this!"

Mirena's eyes held a violent luster, and for the first time, Valin was uncertain if the mirrors truly had any difference in appearance. Her expression too was warped by murderous fury. "I'll enjoy killing you, Wen. Not for taking half my Clan. But for how you warped the only one I've ever managed to love."

Kirwen blinked. "Where is the child?"

"I had to hurt him," said Mirena, and she shook, tears forming in her eyes. The hatred burned brighter in the madness of her eye. "Because you turned him against me! My child, my little one! You made him one of yours. And for that, I'll tear your flesh from your bones, I'll kill you slowly, and peel your eyes from your fucking head!" Her voice rose to a shriek, "I had to hurt my dragon child!"

Fear struck Valin, and he surged forward. Jarre wasn't quick enough to grasp at him to stop him, and Valin raced on to the obsidian plateau, glass in places tearing at his tough leather boots. "What did you do to him, Mirena? What did you do to Zefir?"

Those dark, depthless eyes turned to him. "I should kill you too, Seven."

She's killed him, dear Forge Gods, she's destroyed him.

Fury plunged through his chest, heating him until he thought he would catch fire again; his breaths rasped through his teeth, the pain of his injuries distant. Weaponless, he surged forward, his mind a blur of hatred. It seared his insides; it gave him strength. Time slowed, and her reflexes didn't seem as quick as he remembered. She plucked up her judge's dagger, and he barely saw her release it with a flick of her wrist. He knew he could dodge it—

Hands pulled him down. His chin slammed into the sharp stone, and his broken clavicle screaming in pain; but it was nothing compared to the white-hot agony of his rage. Valin scrabbled to his feet, and hands grasped at his shoulders, his arms. He wanted to destroy those hands that would dare stop him.

He tried to wrench free, but he knew his Third was far stronger than him. Ferrei too was grasping at his left arm with a grip of iron. And she was screaming at him, but he couldn't hear it over the din of his own heartbeat thudding in his head.  

"Let me go!" he roared at his Leaders.

"If he's gone," said Jarre, "then there's nothing you can do. Don't struggle against me, wing runner."

"Zefir wouldn't want you to kill yourself," Ferrei growled, and she released his arm, allowing her massive blood-cousin to keep a grip on him. She grasped at his cheeks, her hand hot against the X wound. "Listen to me, blood-kin. Just as Zefir forbade me from throwing my life away for vengeance, so too would he tell you. Just stand here. Stand here and watch these demon-spawned mirrors kill each other."

He was trembling, and all of the strength left his frame; where before Jarre was holding him back, now his Third was holding him on his feet. "She killed him...he came through all of this, and she killed him. He loved her, and she killed him. Gods, now I know there's no mercy in this world."

Kirwen picked up Mirena's fallen dagger—it must have sailed perilously close to him before Jarre took him down. And she tossed it to her mirror. "Varess was wrong. She always told me that I was the monster. If you were able to harm your own creation, your own ward, your own bedamned child, then you, my mirror, are the ultimate monster."

In a blur, Mirena moved.

And the duel began.

#

Zefir's flight was still a small agony, but Shiran had made adjustments quickly, having told him that it would take some time before Daimo's microcogs integrated fully with the ones that he possessed. But now, he wouldn't be dissuaded, no matter how the young Inventrix protested. No matter the pain.

He was flying for the duel.

#

At first the duel moved so quickly it was difficult to tell which fighter scored the most blows. But they danced on the slick glass rock, cautious, circling one another like hunting felines; then one would move in that graceful, astonishingly quick movement, and the other, as if anticipating that exact move, would dance away, or would try to disengage. Often, it seemed that the mirrors were at a stalemate. Not only were their bodies the same, their mental connection seemed yet another silent battle between them.

At first the crowds of Cog or Wheelteeth around them would cheer whenever their Leaders struck the smallest blow, but now, all had fallen eerily silent.

Valin became numb to watching them, but he couldn't look away. At this point he didn't care who won.

Mirena surged forward, but Kirwen remained still as the statues they resembled; screaming Mirena made to kick Kirwen, but halted the move and slashed with her dagger. Anticipating the move, Kirwen sidestepped, but the Wolf looked less exhausted, and catching Mirena's arm before the next blow, she struggled to pull her from her feet. Bellowing, Kirwen hooked her foot behind her mirror's knee, and Mirena began to fall. But not before Kirwen managed to stab into her mirror's side.

Mirena fell heavily to the obsidian with an audible thud. She grasped at her bleeding side, inhaling a shaky breath.

Kirwen glared down at her. "Don't playact, Mir. The blade didn't reach that deep. I won't be fooled so easily."

His Inventrix gasped in a wheezing breath, and struggled to rise, gaining her feet shakily.

Kirwen pushed at her, the way an angry sibling would during play. "Enough of this! Fight me, damn you!"

Mirena smiled, her teeth bloody. "You could never calculate like me, Wen." She grimaced, inhaling that thin wheeze again. More blood poured down her side. "You miscalculated the..." another wheeze, "depth."

Valin couldn't say if Kirwen's expression were mistrust, or dawning surprise.

"I'm not done with you!" Kirwen bellowed. "Fight me!"

 Mirena staggered forward as if her limbs didn't completely obey her. Kirwen stepped back and instead of advancing, she retreated. Mirena staggered with a pained growl, blindly slashing, but it seemed that lifting the dagger were too much. Trembling fiercely, Mirena barely gripped her weapon.

Kirwen leaped forward, and with a downward slash, caught at Mirena's blade arm. A fount of blood poured down the Inventrix's arm and dribbled from the blade she held, turning the obsidian ground crimson.

"You've won," Mirena gasped. "Finish this. Or will you worry at me like a cat with a plaything?" Another gasped breath. "Do you want true vengeance, or do you simply want to torture me?"

"A...a trick." But the Wolf seemed uncertain, and her tremors made her grip on her dagger look precarious.

Mirena's face creased in raw hatred, spitting, "You were always the weak one! You don't want to kill me. All your posturing, all this time, and all you've wanted is to vent your rage like a petulant child." Mirena began to let out wheeze-like laughter. "Now, you'll just watch me bleed to death like a coward. And your wildling Clan will see you for the weakling you are."

"I've wanted to kill you for a long time," Kirwen said, voice eerily soft. "The moment you broke us apart. The moment of your betrayal during the Trial."

The Wolf swept forward in a graceful lunge, despite her fading energy. Kirwen's blade aimed true, headed toward Mirena's heart. But the staggering Inventrix, shifted with a lithe motion, lifting her arm, even while she came from beneath with her dagger. Kirwen's blade buried in the flesh of Mirena's arm, but the Inventrix's blade buried in Kirwen's abdomen.

They staggered apart, retreating, the blades stuck in their flesh.

Mirena was wheeze-laughing, staring at the blade sticking from her forearm. Kirwen blinked in surprise, hands trembling. Their eyes met, and they took a single step toward one another.

And a thunderous roar split through the sky.

Valin's heart raced into a gallop as he saw the familiar brass form of his dragon.

Zefir tucked his wings to his side and landed heavily in the space between the two mirrors. His claws dug into the black rock, cracking it with a sound of shattered glass; his dragon raised his face to the sky and unleashed a roar so powerful that Valin wondered if it stuttered his heartbeat, the sound rattling around in his sternum.

His friend was alive!

#


Zefir could feel their battle in his chest; the closer he came the more powerful their cracked, and jarring thoughts. He could see for brief moments their actual fight, but was entranced, consumed, by the mental battle as he flew toward them. Always drawn, stretched, controlled by the mirrors. He saw flashes of the Trial, a bludgeon Kirwen used against Mother. But Mother countered with image-feelings of Kirwen standing with the traitors to tear the Clan apart; the lightning-thin razor-edge of hatred stabbed at one another, and Zefir felt each cut like his own.

Daimo rode, barely keeping up this time, his Shiran and Rider Rhin with him. Part of Zefir knew it was right it should be so.

There. He caught sight of their Inventrix-swift movements. He watched as they came together—he felt the wounds in his belly, and in his forearm and side before remembering that these were not his wounds. Their anger cracked something inside of him, and his weariness turned into white-hot fury. He roared so loudly that it deafened even him.

He tucked his wounded, tired wings into his side, knowing it would drop him like a rock. Landing hard, his claws cracked the obsidian, the glass spearing between his fingers. But he didn't feel it. Again he lifted his face to the sky to roar out everything inside—all the pain, the weariness, the fury and fear of his horrible failures. Everything. And his roar seemed to shake the sky itself.

Silence met him.

Silence broken by Kirwen's thought-voice, Oh, child, you live. If there are gods, then this is the only time in my life that I'll thank them.

He could feel all of the pain, how the wound in her belly would cause her a slow, agonizing death. And when he turned an eye on Mother, he could feel her lungs straining, could feel the blood pooling within. Their Inventrix bodies were too decayed to try to rapidly repair any damage. They were dying.

"You..." gasped Mother. "You...came back. To me?"

He no longer wanted to curse her, to hate her. All he could see was this broken, mad creature before him grasping at what had once meant the most to her. He reached out a hand and held her in his palm, cradling her failing body. "Yes, Mother. I love you, and I will always return."

He could feel her mind splitting, his words the only memory she could hold on to. She was even forgetting why she was fighting, where she was. Her blood seeped through his fingertips, and her sole remaining thoughts streamed into him: My Zefir, my little one, my dragon child, my only love, my little little one...

Kirwen staggered toward him, and he caught her in his opposite hand. Her mind was much clearer, but it too was drained of the effort it took to remember her hatred. Zefir child, came her thought-voice, weaker now, can you do this for us?

He didn't need to ask. And he wouldn't make her plead. Kirwen was proud even at the end, but she had asked this of him.

"Zefir," came Kirwen weakly. "Don't share our end. Shield yourself."

He knew he wouldn't. Perhaps he couldn't. But Mother's thoughts ceased to stream into him, distant and empty, though she still yet breathed. Kirwen tried to retreat from him, but he still knew her weary fear.

"I promise, Kirwen," he said quietly, "I promise I'll look after them all as if they were my own."

Her eyes were beginning to glaze over. "I know you will."

Zefir moved his thumb-claws over their hearts, shuddering; he prayed that he would strike fast and strike true; he couldn't bear the idea that he would fail, only giving them more agony, and not release.

Kirwen touched his brass claw with both hands and guided it to the spot over her heart, and nodded.

He knew he was screaming. Roaring. He was cold again as his claws speared through their hearts.

He didn't want to look down at the bodies in his hands, or the blood staining his brass flesh.

#

Valin watched Zefir place the bodies carefully on the ground, sitting there and staring at them, quicksilver eyes empty. There was no disbelief, no regret creasing that dragon brow. Only a weary sadness. And Zefir released a low keen of grief, as he turned away from them.

Those assembled around the Burned Stone, shocked, began to move. One of the Cog Clan's Riders surged forward, possibly to attack the dragon, maybe to launch himself at the Wheelteeh opposite, but Zefir turned his head and stared down at the man, saying, "Enough."

The Wheelteeth were confused, looked tense, ready to launch themselves into a brawl. But Zefir turned to them, to the Navs who had thanked him for saving their innocents, and his voice rose, "Enough."

Valin could feel the tension, that without guidance either side remained coiled, ready to fight. He didn't think anyone could stop it. Neither side was a clear victor, and so, as always, the battle would continue.

A Wheelteeth Nav barreled forward, but a familiar voice intruded, "Stop!"

Valin saw Elder Lyth tottering forward, one hand on Navigator Atsuke's arm. "We're done here. This is over. It's all over. Stand down."

The Cog Clan's Riders and Navs also looks uncertain, but another voice, this of a child, cried, "Yes, my people. This is over. Stand down."

Shiran rode forward, and leapt from Daimo's back, hitting the ground with that eerie boundless grace. The small Rider's uniform on her somehow now looked stately rather than awkwardly childish. She came to stand next to Zefir, and bowed to Elder Lyth, gesturing politely for the Elder to come forward. When the Elder came forward, her mouth in a firm line, the Inventrix bowed again.

"Honored Elder," Inventrix Shiran said. "Am I to concur that you are now Leader of the Wheelteeth?"

Elder Lyth nodded. "And what do you propose, young Inventrix? That I surrender to you?"

"Far from it." Shiran looked even smaller before the Elder. "I propose that we offer peace."

The Elder scoffed, her mouth twisting sourly. She jabbed a gnarled, bent finger at the fallen leaders. "You're like her. Like them. Just the same. I can't trust that. And neither will my people, not when your predecessor tried to annihilate us. You'll rise up again when your hunger for us grows, when you want to either exterminate us wildlings, or conquer us."

The little girl nodded in understanding. "So it would seem from the outside that I'm the same. But inside, I'm different. I'm complete as they never were. And I won't be driven by vengeance. I'm my own person."

"So you say," said the Elder, narrowing her bushy brows. "But an Inventrix never gives up power. Never stops being the ultimate and undisputed ruler. Not like our Clan with its Council, not like my grandmere Kirwen taught us."

"Then I'll give up power." Shiran gestured to those around her. "It was never the intent of the First of my line to become the ultimate ruler. If peace can only be brokered if I show you I'm no controlling despot, then I will do so. Our peoples have fought enough, Honored Elder. We can stop this with only our words. There need not be any more bloodshed."

The Elder frowned suspiciously.

The small Inventrix gestured to Zefir. "The dragon will be our ambassador. I've heard tell that he is revered among you. And so will he help broker our peace as the years go by. For he will remember, this magnificent machine, when some of our people forget." She touched the edge of Zefir's wing. "Are you willing, Zefir?"

Zefir nodded solemnly. "If I must guide peace until I fall apart, then I'll do so gladly. For both Clans."

Valin had never wanted to embrace his dragon more than he did in this moment. Ferrei next to him grasped for his hand and clutched it tightly. Jarre was smiling, a true big grin of the kind Valin hadn't seen in so long he'd thought his Third had lost it.

Shiran turned to the three of them standing together and she gestured them closer. Hesitant, Valin walked forward, Ferrei and Jarre unwaveringly at his side, Innari on their heels. The little Inventrix bowed to them. Now there was something he never thought he'd see in his life.

"Honored Elder," continued the Inventrix. "You claim I'll have no Council. But I give you my Council here, standing before you. All have proven that they will seek to protect the innocent. One among them is even of your blood."

Elder Lyth narrowed her gaze at them, critically assessing them as if she'd never before set eyes on them. "So you have your Council. But will your own people listen to them? They're marked as traitors."

Zefir swiveled his head to regard Rider Rhin standing with Daimo. "Not all believe them traitors. And we can let the people elect more to stand on the Council, to be their voice. I elect Rider Qinethi Rhin as a candidate."

The young Rider looked so astonished that Daimo nudged her with an amused whinny.

Elder Lyth took two steps forward, leaving the bracing arm of Atsuke Xei. She looked so determined to reach Valin, that he held out his hands to her and steadied her. Her wrinkled hands touched his forehead. "Do you swear to uphold this, my distant blood-kin?"

"I do, honored grandmere," Valin answered.

She patted his cheek. "Then let's begin the negotiations for peace."









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Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #33: Dissenting Voices


Zefir glided on the updrafts, feeling his wing membranes stretching differently with the stitches holding on to the flesh; a few places along the length of the wound were overly hot. But after being on fire, maybe it wasn't the worst sensation. His chest muscles flexed beneath the painful burned flesh, and he had to fight hard not to land, curl up in a ball, and wish he'd stayed with his squadron.

He thought he'd heard a wisp of Innari's thought-voice searching for him, but having practiced keeping Kirwen away from his true feelings, he shielded himself from her mentally. The land below cruised by at an almost leisurely pace, the thick, dark forests of the Wheelteeth's lands mixing with the rocky plateaus near the Burned Stone.

And he caught sight of hawkling scouts cruising at an altitude far above; one dived toward him, and he wondered if the scout would open fire. He recognized the symbol on the side as from the Second Wing of his full squadron—formerly Ferrei's domain. And the Nav lifted a fist in the descend, land gestures.

Feeling he was pushing his luck, he flew on, barely able to fly much higher than the treetops. Not for the first time did he wonder why Mother made him unable to fly to his utmost without a Navigator. At first glance it seemed a crippling flaw. And perhaps it was...but as a newly minted creature he'd waited for his proven Nav, and when he'd chosen Valin, Zefir hadn't considered being without him. But we're stronger together.

But he knew his decision to leave his Navigator behind was the right one.

A second hawkling buzzed passed his nose, precariously close. A warning. And its Nav flickered battle signs at him. Land. Or engage.

There was no sign for Inventrix, not even in the Nav's elegant hand-speech. But he signed, hoping they could see his large dragon hands: Meeting with your Leader. Then in the battle-sign: Escort this flyer.

The flyers hesitated, he could see them loop around a second time, before they fell into place on either side of him, far enough away to avoid a physical strike, or even his flame. The first hawkling pushed ahead of him, leading the way.

They flew over the glassy top of the Burned Stone, and on the other side of the plateau in the distance, the scrub brush gave way to another dark forest. Within he saw—what? Eight full regiments of Riders and their coghorses, no nine. And two squadrons and their grounded flyers arranged around them. Several station tents were arranged in the semi-half circle of organized chaos, where Firsts could meet to organize their people, and lay out the end battle plans. Riders and Navs milled about in a way they rarely comingled in the past, but they moved like those nervous to start the fight. As the hawklings drew to land at the nearest unmarked tent the same size and shape as all the others, he could hear something tingling against his heart-mind.

Images of fire entered his mind unbidden. The heat of the crucibles spilling below—the walkway too hot, too hot! And Varess...

Zefir shook himself. Of course. The virul-microcogs the mirrors shared were part of Mother as well. With a great effort he came to land, backwinging as he unshielded his mind from such intrusion. And nearly collapsed as—

The X, the damned X...gouge it in all flesh. Mark them as mine. As traitors. The Navigators I bred failed me, such blood shame. And I could've ended this, ended it all...such pain. To save them. But they failed...no I failed. My greatest failure yet, and now I may not live long enough to see the true battle that comes.  

And Zefir grimaced as he walked closer to the tent, but kept his heart-mind precariously open to the maddening stream of conflicting thoughts.

Slowly, she became aware of his presence. Kirwen? Are you prepared to die in the duel—?

Mother burst through the flap of the tent, baring her judge's blade on her hip and wearing the black-on-black high collared uniform of an Inventrix called to sit in judgment. She blinked at him, and Zefir couldn't hold back on a low, despairing keen. Her hair was matted, as if left unkempt, and he could see the hollows of her cheekbones; but her eyes—they held a luster, gleaming too bright, as if unwilling to completely leave the realm of her tattered thoughts. He could feel her confusion press against him, her stuttered thought process.

They stood like that, suspended without moving.

"Mother," he managed to whisper. He fought back on tears.

She blinked at him, as if fighting to study whether he was real or not. She barked, "No." And she spun about to walk back into her tent, disappearing from view.

Such dismissal twisted inside of him, the now familiar coldness making him shudder. I'm her child...But the coldness changed, became an elemental fire that made his burns throb and his wings pulse and ache in syncopation. The fire built within him until he wondered if he would be able to release a jet of white-hot flame. Gritting his teeth, he reached for the edge of the tent; and he wrenched it from its pole, the tent stakes flying into the air as he threw the entire tent over his shoulder. It flew until it crashed into the nearest station tent, those within crying out.

Mother was sitting in a camp chair, not even looking at the fact that she was now exposed; she pressed her hands to her temples, eyes squeezed shut, muttering to herself, "It isn't him, my child is dead. This is a memory remnant only. It isn't him. It isn't. Don't open your eyes. Just a memory specter that bears the burns of his death..."

And suddenly it was as if he was drawn into her memory, seeing the inside of the Beast's head, her motions assured—she had created this monstrous flyer. But she watched the battle below, knowing nothing could stop it or its inevitable cargo. And she would force herself to watch the carnage it would wreak on those wildings below—her children of long ago no longer—so it would be one of her last memories, so she would die knowing that her Clan and all her children would survive. But she caught the glint of brass. The great brass flesh of her true child, the only creation she cared about as he flew upwards—

Zefir saw himself falling from the sky on fire.

"Mother," he said again, stepping toward her. He glanced to the side and saw several Riders with arrows nocked but not pulled. Uncertain.

"Gods," she whispered. "Why do you have to torment me with his voice?" And tears squeezed from the corners of her tightly closed eyes, falling over her hollow cheeks.

His stolid, immovable Mother weeping. He never thought he'd see such a thing.

He glanced at the Riders, and at the Navs even now with their pistols half raised. If it was to be, then it was to be. Zefir walked forward and nudged his nose against her arms, nearly knocking her from her chair. Her eyes flew open in surprise to feel his specter touching her, and she lifted her hands, trembling. Zefir opened his wings wide, and reached toward her with them. Her eyes focused on the stitching in his wings, and her mouth contorted in fury, eyes flashing. "I never would repair him so poorly. Be gone remnant. I know you to be false."

Perhaps the only way to reach her was through her constant Inventrix's need to repair and alter. He was her greatest creation. "Yes, the stitching. It hurts, Mother. My wings feel too hot now, because the cooling veins had to be moved. Can you repair it?" Her eyes narrowed fixedly on the gash in his side, and rose to her feet in one fluid motion. Zefir said, "Mid-air collision. Do you have more of that flesh-growing salve? Like you made after my first crash?"

"I told that Nav of yours that he was a fool for not reigning you in," she said, eyes still fixed on his many wounds. "But I can see now that such a task must have been nigh on impossible. You were always the fiercest of us all, little one."

Little one. Those words struck him, wrenching the cadence of his steady heart-mind. His eyes grew too warm with tears—how he was able to cry when he felt conflicting sensations of hot and cold he didn't know. They almost seemed to scald his face as they cascaded down his nose. "Mother, I'm alive. Please. I need you. Help me."

"I'm dying," she whispered. "And you're proof, remnant."

Kirwen was right. If he couldn't even speak to her logically, how could he convince her to give up on the war? In this moment he almost didn't care about the war, or the battles to come. He wanted his Mother back, for her to help him, to speak to him about all the things he'd asked about when newly created. To teach and assure and—

Why do people die? He'd once asked her in his innocence.

Because it is their time, she'd answered. And we never know when that is. Even I don't. And neither will you.

"Mother," he said from between his tears, "why do people die?"

She stared at him as she had then with that faint hint of hesitation. The same look Valin had that suggested whatever he said might forever shape Zefir as he grew. Slowly, something clicked within her mind, and she focused on him. Truly saw.

But her mind still moved. You've our virul-cogs, haven't you?

She was thinking logically again. He could feel it. And a great wave of relief overcame him, so that he found himself crying harder. Sobbing. And he didn't know why. Or why he couldn't stop himself. I do. Seren gifted them to me before she...

"Because she didn't want you to be alone."

"Yes," he said, inhaling a shaky breath.

She regarded him, studying him with a critical eye; her expression was remote. Unreadable. He almost wanted to cheer. But instead another sob shook his chest.

"And now," she said coldly, "you're Kirwen's creature."

The cold tone surprised him. Anger surged. "I'm no one's creature. I'm my own dragon."

Her tone didn't change, but he heard her choke as she said, "Then why would you turn against your own Clan?"

He was aware of those around them, the Navs and Riders. The fighters for the Clan he'd called home. The ones he'd sworn to protect. What could he say—to them? Some of the may have even fought in the battle for the firebomb, may have watched him rip apart the hawkling.

He raised his voice, telling himself that he wouldn't answer purely in the realm of his thought-voice out of guilt. All must hear and judge him. "When I was younger, you said that it was my choice, and I could choose whether or not to fight for those I loved. Because you told me I was capable of love, as if I didn't already know I loved you. You said I had a choice to fight for the people and my home, or to go elsewhere. To find my own way." He swallowed, feeling the eyes of so many of his Clan weighing on him. "What I didn't know then is that I was capable of loving and fighting for more than just one people. For the children that squealed when I stuck my tongue out at them. For the Elders that tottered along on their canes, and for their wisdom. For the wounded, the sick, and helpless."

Zefir lifted his head, and looked at all of those around him. Mother remained silent, her eyes dark.

"We're all sick from this war," Zefir said, his voice raising in strength. "Sick from the shadowfall we pretend doesn't exist. Sick from the loss, from of our loved ones gone. The Cog Clan is sick. The Wheelteeth Clan is sick. And we can't heal from this. Neither of us can. Not while we still fight, not while the losses keep happening. My own First Leader sacrificed herself for the remainder of my squadron. I've seen many more do so in the air. I...tried. And part of me wishes I had died as I did so, because I can't...I can't bear it any longer." 

Her mouth firmed into a thin slash on her face. The face of an Inventrix, and one called to judge. "And you think you're not a traitor now? Because you believe that saving the enemy was right?"

"I believe that watching their children dying in flames was a greater atrocity than stopping you. Than harming..." he swallowed around the feeling of not gaining enough breath, "than killing men and women from my own Wing. It wasn't a matter of numbers. Or that the Wheelteeth are the enemy. The helpless are not the enemy. The innocents are beyond harm."

Her eyes burned into him, and he had to fight to keep his eyes raised. "Do you think that they haven't harmed our innocents in the past? That they haven't razed our fields when the Harvesters were planting the spring crop?"

"And you've burned their crops. And you've ignited their forests." Zefir stomped forward, his dragon feet a thunderous thump against the soil. "When does it stop? When will the endless fighting end?"

Fury suffused her face. Something deep inside of Zefir wanted to shrink from such evidence of his Mother's wrath. His Inventrix. Creator. 

"It ends," she snarled, "when they're all dead."

His mouth opened, aghast. Words wouldn't come. Not when he watched her entire body shaking from the ferocity of her vengeful hatred.

Quietly, Zefir said, "You're wrong. This ends when everyone is dead. When generations from now," and he swung his head around to speak to those in the crowd around him, "your children's children are fighting and dying. When their children die in battle. When they leave infants at home, motherless, fatherless."

"The firebomb would've saved them all," said his Mother again in that cold, implacable tone.

"And would it have saved those Wheelteeth children?" he countered, curving his neck down to stare her in the eye. "Would you have truly watched them burn?"

The darkness in her eye deepened, and her stance firmed. But he could see the haunted mien behind her granite features. "I was prepared to. And instead I watched my own child, my little one, flying against me. Against the Clan he swore allegiance to. Flew with. To save the bedamned enemy." She shook her head. "I don't know how, but my mirror turned you against me. And I have one more reason to kill her."

The fury flew deep into his heart mind, until he felt his breath heat. Frustration beat against his insides along with the desperation. "You two and your disgusting vengeance. Your narrow view that only extermination will end the conflict. For such elder beings, you act as children yourselves. Peace is the answer. But neither of you will consider it. You, the fucking bedamned leaders, and you lead us into death while you live on for your two centuries."

"You don't understand, child," she said. And it was in that same exact tone that Kirwen always spoke to him.

"Don't you dare say such a thing," he growled. One of the Riders fully drew back on his arrow as Zefir's voice rumbled so violently he knew they could all feel it in their chests. "You think I haven't been marked by all the death? Do you think me so innocent, so naïve that I can't remember Denaru falling from the sky? Screaming as he kissed the ground? Or Nyru's remains? I still see her when I close my eyes. Or the hawkling I held in my hands as I tore it apart? You made me to learn and grow. And learn I have. I understand perfectly, Mother. Even with my limited battle experience, I've seen enough fighting and death for ten lifetimes. And so have your people. My people. All of them. Be they Cog or Wheelteeth, all you fragile little humans. You deserve peace."

Mother still regarded him, her expression impenetrable. "You are still naïve, little one. You think peace is the answer. That their hatred won't rise again and turn against us. But you're wrong, my stubborn child. We've brokered peace before. One hundred years ago. And in a matter of two years, they attacked, breaking the peace, and killed a group of our Riders. I still bear their names—" and she tapped her temple, "—here. And I swore I wouldn't forget them."

Zefir should've been startled that there was more history he had never learned, but he wasn't. "And you never tried again? Did you think that peace was easy? That it wasn't something you should fight for?"

Mother sliced her hand through the air. "Enough of this nonsense. I'll hear no more."

Zefir leaned down and grabbed her up into his hands, folding his wings about them both; he cried out as a single arrow buried in the mechanical muscle of his shoulder, and he could feel his equivalent of blood pouring down his brass flesh. But no more arrows came when Mother shouted for a halt. Already the pain was distant, all the physical, for none of it mattered. Not now. He turned his head to use his teeth to pluck the small arrowhead from his flesh, and spat it on the ground.

She looked up into his face, lines of pain at her brow. "You would kill your maker?"

"No," he said, choking. "How could you think—?"

"Because you're a traitor." Her lips firmed in a line, and her eyes grew cold. Judging. Weighing. "My own child. My creation. And you've turned against me." Something in her eye shifted, burning too bright, and he sensed from their virul connection that her thoughts were a painful fury. An unstable confusion. "Like Kirwen. Like Valin. Like those who left to form the Wheelteeth. All of you, you always turn against me. What have I done that you all would hate me so much? I fight for you, I would willingly give my life for you all, my children, my wards, and yet comes the hatred. The hate!" She struggled to focus on the broad expanse of his face. "Even my own creation hates me."

"Mother I don't hate you." Zefir almost wished that he did, for hating her was easier than understanding. "I hate your actions. But you can change those. You can help us all by negotiating once again for peace—"

"There can be no peace!" she shrieked. "They'll kill you all, my wards. My only reason for existing is to lead, and keep you all safe." She thumped her breast with a fist so hard that Zefir wanted to shake her. "I was made to protect. How can I do that if they still live after I'm dead? They'll destroy my Clan. My people."

She was shivering...no they were tremors. Like Kirwen's. He didn't want to set her down, but she was nearly convulsing in his hands. He placed her on the ground, holding her aloft as she trembled. Slowly, the tremors stopped, but her mind sped to the past—

She stared down at the men and women, her people, their faces aglow in fierce anger. They were shouting at her as she sat here on the judge's pedestal, wearing the uniform that Varess had worn. The cloth itched against her at the thought that this regalia had been close to her tormenter's skin—the same exact skin as her own.

And there was Kirwen at the front of the crowd, her eyes burning in such disgust. "Let us form a Council, Mirena. The people wish to have a say. Some bloodlines no longer wish to be bred. You are young and untried as our Inventrix—"

"But I am your Inventrix," she snapped. "Is that what you wish to be, Wen? The ultimate Leader of our people without the tools ingrained in you for the task? Or the ability to better the Clan through invention?" She took in the sight of Seren in her healing colors, standing next to those who were training her in the healing arts, the Palm sigil at her shoulder. "Or Seren? Who desires only learning and creation? Should she perhaps be our Inventrix? Our people call us Abominations, we three. And now they've chosen you?"

"I help them. Because none of we three are all knowing, Mir," Kirwen said, voice tight in frustration. "Our people have feared Varess's cruel domination for far too long. They wish to have a voice. You can grant them that."

Seren spoke, her eyes gleaming. "It is not a weakness to listen. Or ask for assistance, Mirena. The people are yours, yes. But you must remember that it's more important that you are theirs. They have a voice. Varess didn't let them speak. She silenced everyone. Even us. But you can give them their voice back. Hear them. Listen."

Zefir blinked, looking down at her face slack in remembrance. Slowly, she became aware of his holding her upright, and she clutched at him.

Softly, Zefir asked her, "Have you asked your children?"

She glanced up at him, eyes bloodshot. "What?"

"Have you asked those people dying for you what they want?" When her brows lowered, he pushed on, clutching her. "Have you asked your wards if they want peace?"

"I..." Mother shook her head, pushing against his large hands. "There were those that flew with me. They were all volunteers—"

"Not all wished this. I know that. One of your Riders told me of the firebomb's flight, because that Rider knew it was wrong. But they face only exile or the brand of traitor if they use their voices to speak up, to tell you that they want peace. That they too are tired of the death. You're not listening to the silent ones, because you've taken their voice."

She released his hand and stumbled away from him, stricken. "You use Kirwen's words against me? Ah, yes, I see. You're more fully hers than you realize."

"No, Mother, not Kirwen's words," he said. "Seren's. Your Two. The second of you, and the person either of you rarely listened to. And now that she's gone, neither of you will remember her."

"I felt her passing," said Mother, voice breaking. "Even at such a distance, her death was...like my own. I remember her, little one."

Zefir wanted to scream in frustration, but he curled his hands into near fists, his claws gleaming. "Then remember her words. Ask your people if they want this. Be their true leader, their Inventrix, and give them their voice."

She straightened her back, and took several steps away from him. Mother turned to those around her, many of them First Leaders and the most elite of her squadrons. "What say you, my people?"

The Riders crowded closer, and the one who had shot at Zefir, an older grizzled veteran, met Zefir's eye without flinching. The First Leader turned to his Inventrix, chin raised, bow still in his hand. "I stand by our Inventrix. She will lead us to victory! The Wheelteeth will be damned to the ten hells when we're through with them!"

The others of his regiment cheered with him, chanting, "Victory! Victory!"

Mother smiled beatifically, and Zefir wondered if she was desperate to retain the appearance of her strength despite the obvious signs of her decay. And Zefir hated that he saw how far her body had degraded, and how far her mind had plunged toward the breaking point. Her every move appeared strong as she lifted her hands in Rider sign: Victory is yours.

Zefir raised his voice above the roaring chant, his baritone thunderous, "And what of those who fear condemnation, Mother? Those who fear exile? Or the traitor's mark for disagreeing with you? Give them immunity and hear their pleas."

"Then I'll show you, little one, how wrong you are." Mother turned back to those assembled and lifted her hands; the regiment grew silent instantly. "Come, my people, speak to me. Speak of your fears! Let me hear your doubts as to our rightness. If you have any sympathies for the enemy, if you—"

"I do."

Zefir arched his neck to see a lone figure sidling through the crowd. He recognized her as Rider Rhin, and just since he last saw her, she looked haggard.

"Qinethi Rhin," said Mother without inflection. But her gaze narrowed.

Rhin bowed in deep obeisance. "Inventrix, I have doubts. Ever since I saw the firebomb you created, I've wondered. What gives us the right? What gods will smile upon us for murdering their children? Their Elders? There was a heavy disquiet that grew inside of me." She knocked on her chest with her archer's gloves. "There were others around me that cheered for this. But I couldn't cheer. There was only dread. We as a Clan would have slayed far too many innocents. And victory at such a cost surely isn't a victory." She paused, her back hunching as if to feel the weight of her bow in its holster. "If peace, as the dragon says, is possible...then we should fight as fiercely for that as we've fought to protect our own. Because peace will protect our own. And—"

"It was you," Mother said coldly. "The one Zefir spoke of. The one who told him of the firebomb's flight."

Rhin looked stricken, but she straightened her stance. "Yes, Inventrix. I told your dragon, knowing full well that he and his Navigator intended to stop you."

"Traitor," Mother growled. Her eyes were alight and a steady stream from her mind pounded against Zefir: Traitor, traitor, they all turn against me. Traitor!

"Mother, she has immunity," Zefir said, "you said they could air their fears—"

"I made no such promise for immunity." She turned to the girl, who firmed her lips, head straight forward as if waiting for inspection from a Leader. "You, Qinethi, you betrayed our Clan to a known traitor. To Seven Valin." Then more quietly to the girl, "You've been the little rat's lackey. I know you've been undermining me, just like Shiran has. And at her direction, no doubt. And now, dear girl, you'll pay dearly for that. Half our fighters heard you admit to it."

Zefir fluttered his aching wings in distress. "Mother, you can't."

She whirled around to him, bellowing, "By all the gods, I will do my duty to this Clan until my dying breath!"

With the unnatural speed of an Inventrix she moved.

She caught Rhin by the throat. The Rider's eyes widened, and she scrabbled at the iron-hold; Mother raised the judges dagger, and Zefir moved. Pouncing, Zefir grabbed Mother's entire body, not daring to tear her away from the Rider, knowing her grip was like stone. Still the dagger moved, and Zefir intersected its slashing path with a wing; the blade tore against the ruined part of his membrane and he released a roar. Mother was still gripping at the Rider's throat, eyes narrowed, her lips curled in a snarl. Rhin's eyes were bulging.

"Let go of her, Mother!"

Her eyes turned to him, but he knew his Mother was gone. "My little one is dead."

She released the Rider, and turned the dagger deftly in her hand—so fast even Zefir could barely track the movement. The end of blade plunged into the top of his hand. With a roar he released her, and she fell, extracting the dagger. But with the madness of her Inventrix strength she moved again, and Zefir flinched just enough as the blade sliced into the pseudo-metallic flesh of his jaw. Despair welled up inside of him. She couldn't kill him outright, but she could wound him enough to where he'd be immobile. And then...what would she do?

If he moved against her, the Riders would release all their arrows into him. If he flew away, Rhin would be at her mercy.

He backed away, wishing he weren't weeping. "Mother, please. Stop this."

Again that distant look in her dark eye. "My Zefir is gone. You turned against me." As he let out a despairing keen, her face contorted in grotesque madness before smoothing out, expressionless. "All traitors are dead to the Clan. You don't exist. My child, my poor, misguided child. How I loved you. I didn't think myself capable of it. I'm an Inventrix, and we don't love. It isn't possible."

She moved faster than he'd ever seen. She laid another slash across his jaw; but Zefir moved then—expanding his wings. She held the dagger and poised to throw it; Zefir launched himself toward Rider Rhin, grabbling her up into his hands. He lifted himself skyward—feeling all of the fire in his systems, the agony tight in his chest.

He roared as the dagger buried in the space of his back, almost between his wings—where the Navigator panel was part of his very flesh. Something cracked inside of him. There was more pain than even falling from the sky on fire. But he flew on with the doomed Rider in his grip, telling himself that his own Mother didn't just hobble him for good, that she didn't just sever his only connection to flight, to his Navigator. 
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