Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #6: Was It Within You All Along?

Upon the back of the thopter ready to lift off, Seren watched the brass dragon fly upward, enraptured by Zefir's effortless movement. Her mind calculated—the equations flittering by at such a speed, tangling beautifully as she thought each one into being, seeing the world in their exacting terms: the arc of his flight (calculate the rate of speed), the apex of the upward stroke of his wings (one percent from stretching to his utmost), and even the length of time it would take the sunlight to glint off of his bright brass hide and reach her eye.

"Ah, you didn't tie his ability for fire just to anger," Seren said quietly, seeing the bright orange flame shoot from Zefir's mouth. "I see that now, yes, quite brilliant. Hmm, love is so complex, even I have difficulties with the variables."

Mirena's mind tangled inside of Seren's own, the microcogs binding them ticking in sympathetic resonance; Seren halted some of the equations, knowing even her mirror wouldn't understand the complexity, the euphoric chaos of the way she saw the world. Seren shied away, worried how easy it was to harm her mirror-kin with her own thoughts—

"Lissteri," Mirena said softly.

The inventor's tongue pulled at her, each syllable full of information. The 'L' sound—length times ten, the 'iss' meaning connected as if through a conduit, the 'ter' the time for the connection to be made, and the 'i' the infiniteness of such a connection.

The word they'd created to mean what they were to one another. Not just a mirror created to be three—Mirena for her balanced completeness, composed of both the inventor's mind with the qualities of a leader, Seren for her imperturbable ability to see the world in terms of pure creation, and their third—

"Please, Seren," her sister whispered. "Don't even think her name."

"We three complete," said Seren, the memory of her own words drifting up from two hundred and two years past. But she shied away from it—difficult when the memory beckoned. There were so many that drew her down into the pits of her own recollections, for there were so many variables to puzzle in the past.

Seren focused on Zefir again, his form arrowing above all of the smaller forms. "He is undoubtedly your best work."

"It took my all to create him." Mirena was urging the thopter through its warm-up, its feet galloping to launch skyward. "It broke me. The memory locks have happened twice since. The slide was inevitable, and Zefir is proof. It might not be long before I can't...come out of it. The end is close."

"Having me around won't help," Seren said sadly, and then thinking of working next to her mirror once more, the pure act of creation with another, and she brightened. "I can help you make him siblings. But I won't make them with any of Zefir's secondary traits."

Her mirror twisted to look behind her in the Second Control seat, and raised a cool brow. "Secondary?"

"You know, all of the war-like traits. The flame. The claws—like sickle-swords they are."

"I made him to fight," her mirror said sternly. "As he's doing even now to protect us. Those are his primary traits."

Seren didn't need to touch her mirror's mind in order to know Mirena was lying to herself, and quite well, lending to years of practice in that arena. She shook her head at Mirena's stubbornness. "He calls you Mother. I rather think those were his first words, hmm? If you only wanted a battle creature, you didn't need to give him the ability to love you."

Her mirror glared at Seren through her flight goggles as the thopter was aloft. "Your defect allows for such emotions, which would only impede my other abilities. I didn't give him that because—not for me...I didn't need it aimed at me."

Seren began to laugh. She could hear the music scales in her own laughter, and loving music as she did for the unique maths contained within, her voice trailed higher until she was breathless. "You're changing. It is a sign of your failing, like I am, but you can truly feel it now. Your loneliness. It was there, inside all along. How glorious that you're failing has allowed you to understand the true meaning of that empty sensation."

Mirena muttered wryly, "Pos'i."

Pos—positive, certain, an elek-charge. I—infinity, self.

Always positive.

Seren had difficulty hearing wry tones in other's voices, so she chose to believe it as stated. Always positive. And perhaps then, Mirena was the negative side. Like two magnetic rocks reaching for one another, compelled because they were opposites.

Not two. Three.

Both Seren and Mirena looked upward, sensing the pull of their third in the fight above them.

#

Valin tucked himself close to Zefir's body as the dragon flew higher, his flight mask pumping a small amount of pure air to invigorate him for the battle. The giddy-terrified feeling made his limbs tingle; behind him he saw three ketch gryphons, talon-locks outstretched to drag them down. After another five-hundred meters, the gryphons and the Navigators upon their backs reached the apex of their ability to fly this high, and fell behind.

Valin adjusted the temperature controls and supplied more air to Zefir's chest, the diaphragm-ballonet inflating rapidly. But he could feel it—the utmost height they could attain, and through his microcog-hearing implant he said to Zefir, "Now! Dive!"

This time there was no hesitation. No protests about needing to climb higher. Valin showed Zefir the direction through the panel, what degree of drop was best, and Zefir pivoted in mid-air, tucking himself, before following a downward arc.

Valin's stomach flew into his throat as Zefir pointed himself like an arrow, diving faster—faster—the shapes of the gryphons now close. He reached into the saddlebags and palmed one of the hand-sized fire-bombs, the ceramic ice cold in his gloved hand. The liquid within would explode on contact, but only if the ceramic shattered.

Zefir rumbled at the formation below them and when he opened his mouth—an explosively loud roar came from him.

Along with a stream of orange-hot flame.

Valin inhaled sharply in surprise.

The flame caught and engulfed one of the small gryphons; it tumbled from the sky, end over end, a blackened ruin...along with the Nav controlling it.

The heat seared along Valin's face, making it through the flight mask. Warnings flared all along the control panel, heat spiking, the cooling veins overtaxed. Zefir needed to draw great gulps of air to help with the heat, but was holding his breath as he dived.

Valin steadied the dragon's temp as best he could. Gryphons were desperately trying to scatter from their path. Aiming, Valin chucked the fire-bomb as one gryphon flapped its odd feathered wings; it caught and the creature was engulfed in the liquid—the percussive force of the explosion rocked him in his seat.

Zefir roared again, and Valin could see the temps even out. Strapped to his seat, he half stood upon the dragon's back and hurled the fire-bombs at the struggling gryphons, noting belatedly that none of the enemy shot back—not even with aeropistols. Valin had been grazed several times to know the air-powered flechettes were deadly, but none in the Wheelteeth squadron were carrying them.

Half a dozen of the enemy's squadron fell from the sky from the bombs, but there were still so many left that Zefir went to work with his teeth and claws.

Something was off.

This close, Valin could see the eerie flight masks the Wheelteeth wore. Patterned like a grinning skull, the airtube connections snaked from the tooth-like mouth. Even as he watched one Wheelteeth Nav send his gryphon's legs to clamp down on Zefir, the dragon pivoted at the direction Valin indicated—and Valin hurriedly adjusted flow to his wings—as Zefir's claws slashed through the gryphon's prettily feathered wings.

Zefir didn't stop there. Twisting mid-air as none of the small, easily maneuverable gryphons could, the dragon tore through the Wheelteeth squadron with an eager ferocity. His teeth ripped apart the machine flyers, until machinery liquid caked his brass hide. Those Navs still strapped to the wreckage tumbled from the sky.

More and more Valin had to fight with the controls to keep Zefir's inner workings cool.

Some unheard signal thrummed through the enemy. Those remaining swooped downward, flying desperately back toward the east.

Zefir trembled and began to chase after them, but Valin signaled a halt. The dragon resisted, still flying with his rapid strokes when Valin barked, "Enough, Zefir. They're retreating."

"If I rip them all apart," Zefir growled through their connection, "then they won't come back. Wounded men may return, but dead men don't."

One of the many sayings of the Clan Navigators.

"No," Valin said, spotting a lone gryphon making tight circles below them. "Something's off. It could be a trap. And the one below us is likely their squad leader."

"Cut off the head, and the body withers," Zefir rumbled.

Yet another Navigator proverb. And Valin had to wonder if Zefir was simply mimicking, or if he understood the implications of what he uttered. Cheerless thoughts grew inside of him, knowing that the dragon's child-like naivety would never last. Zefir was built to learn and grow, but Valin wasn't certain he liked the lessons the dragon was learning.

He found himself repeating the Inventrix's words. "Did you learn that, or was it within you all along?"

The dragon hesitated and looked down at himself, seeing the machine-liquids splattered along his brass hide, though Valin wasn't convinced the dark liquid was all from the gryphons. The dragon's teeth had been rather indiscriminate between the machines and those directing the machines.

"But," Valin said, "if we capture the leader, we could learn important information. Now, hurry. Before it gets away."

Turning at the angle Valin showed him, Zefir began to dive once more.

Though the gryphons couldn't hover, the Wheelteeth squad leader was making almost lazy circles as its fellows retreated. It was wrong. An invitation. One too good to pass up. Valin's insides itched with the wrongness of it all; when Zefir was a mere two wingbeats away from the enemy gryphon, Valin signaled the dragon to pull up, shouting, "Abort!"

The enemy squadron leader was pointing a large rifle at them—no not an aerorifle. But even as Zefir darted to the side, barely arresting his downward plunge, Valin heard the rifle—no cannon—roar out. What sprang from its maw was a tight ball of cable. A net, which opened over them. They enclosed Zefir's spread wings, the weights on the ends twirling together with magnets. They began to plunge; Zefir roared in fear, desperately trying to untangle his wings from the net. But the metallic cables held fast against his raking claws.

The cables pressed against Valin's body, painfully tight. The enemy squad leader, the flight mask in the shape of a fierce wolf, moved the controls and swooped down after them. The gryphon's ketch-feet clamped on the top of the cable, arresting their plunge only slightly. But Valin saw other, hidden gryphons taking off from the ground—another squadron!—who with swiftness of their machine-kind reached Zefir. Ten gryphons clamped their feet to the net.

And began to carry them toward the east.

#

Valin's mouth was dry, his stomach in his throat. He wasn't certain how far they'd been taken, but the terrain below them was no longer the bright grasslands surrounding their valley territory, but dots of dark green pine trees began to appear. The edges of the disputed zone.

The whirring sound of a ornithopter bomber impugned itself on his ears. No, not just one thopter, but several, and...something quicker. The whirl of engines roared, deafening, and Zefir managed to crow, "Our squad!"

The other sounds then, were the sparrowhawks—hawklings as the Clan's Navs called them affectionately. One-person flyers, lightning fast, tight to maneuver, but hard to control in high winds.

One hawkling darted around the gryphons straining to keep Zefir aloft, and the dragon cried, "Ferrei!"

The hawkling's beak was open to fire flechettes, but the Navigator hesitated. Instead its diamond-tipped claws sliced through one gryphon, before darting away. A single thopter flew in its pattern toward them, but managed to chart a course around the net in looping circles. He could see his Inventrix stand in her seat, straps straining to keep her in place.

Her voice boomed outward, somehow amplified through the thopter's systems; he wondered, his techwork mind seeking out all of the ways that sound could be enhanced. For it was better than pondering his death at the hands of the enemy.

"You take him," the Inventrix boomed, "and I won't cease until I tear you from the sky. You and all your flyers."

The enemy squadron leader chuckled, the flight mask both enhancing and distorting her voice, "This same squad fled from me last time. What makes you think their cowardly streaks won't make them flee again?"

Zefir struggled at that, a deep growl beginning inside.

"Shoot at me," said the enemy, "and you'll hit your creation. Shoot at me, and I'll dump him to the ground."

"Out of spite," the Inventrix said, chin raised. "You'd really destroy something so wonderfully built only to keep him from me. Something you long to own for yourself."

Valin recognized her cold, imperious tone and knew he had to do something. He spoke lowly over his implanted connection to the dragon, "Zef? Can you concentrate your flame?"

He felt the dragon twitch his shoulder blades once. Yes.

"I know if you flame them, we'll fall. But the squad might catch us before we hit the ground."

Zefir shuddered, his entire body trembling in fear. Two twitches. No. So the dragon knew the chances of their being caught were minimal. Valin had calculated the chances and the distance to the ground, and they would splatter long before...

Valin knew it was their only chance.

Or perhaps not. They could surrender.

Shame burning bright in his chest, stomach unsettled from the self-loathing at the mere idea, he felt Zefir's sides swell as the dragon drew in air; he dragon's systems were heating up, his very skin hot to the touch.

Valin uttered a taught, "No, Zef."

The dragon rumbled but released no more than a flicker through the netting.

Choosing to save Zefir, if not himself, Valin raised his voice, "We will surrender to you on one condition!"

The silence that followed gnawed at him; he looked to the hawkling buzzing by and saw Ferrei's gesture in the Nav sign language: the sun beckons. Was that the fatalistic opinion that he kill himself rather than be caught?

"Valin," barked the Inventrix, her stern face covered by the blank flight mask. "If you dare—"

"The conditions!" he called to the wolf-faced leader. "The dragon will not be dismantled, tested, or otherwise harmed."

The enemy nodded, an odd chuckle coming from it.

Zefir inhaled, and for a moment Valin was certain the dragon would release a gout of flame despite Valin's warning. Zefir's baritone voice rumbled deeper, sounding nothing like the youngster Valin thought him. "Condition two!"

Some of the gryphons changed their circular flight paths, startled like a flock of birds scattering. Valin couldn't help but grin. See that he's no mere machine flyer!

"My Navigator," Zefir said, raising the astonishing might of his voice, "will not come to harm, nor will he be parted from me for any reason. If you dare to hurt him—I-I'll rip you all apart!"

The wolf-face regarded the dragon for minutes, an agony of eons. Or so it seemed. "Fair enough. You conditions are binding. Give your word. I require your parole, so swear upon the sundisk if its pleases you, that you'll not attempt to escape."

He could hear Ferrei's scream of "traitor!" And the Inventrix's bellow of "halt!" to the rest of the squadron.

Bile rising, Valin managed, "I so give my parole."

More flame flickered from Zefir's mouth; his quicksilver eyes narrowed to slits. "Me too."

#

Like a guinea fowl in a hunter's sack, Zefir ceased to struggle, trussed beneath the gryphons. How he itched to release flame, his insides heating so much that his eyes watered. The squad, his squad, was so close he wanted to call out their names. Ferrei, who never liked him, buzzed about them effortlessly in her hawkling single-flyer. Jarre could be seen in his thopter on point in the middle of the triangular flight formation, with First Leader Nyru at the head.

Mother moved her bomber closer. Zefir could almost reach out and touch her. Seren in the Second Control seat rose from her straps and—

With a leap—a giggle exploding from her—Seren was airborne for but a minute. Then the metal cable fell beneath her hands, her toes tucked quickly between the spaces; she shimmied her lithe, small body between the net's cables; without word Zefir held out his hands and she rested herself on them. When she plopped down to sit, he curled his fingers around her and cradled her close to his chest.

Why were these humans always leaping about in the air? It made his breaths fall unevenly, his heart stuttering. He wanted to let out a curse, but kept it inside. Damn these wingless ones. Why are they so little and fragile?

Seren grinned up at him. "Ah now, dear dragon, no nonsense about how I shouldn't be jumping around in the air. I'm an Inventrix. I calculated the distance to perfection."

"But why did you do it?" He curled his fingers tighter around her, careful lest his claws twitch. "Are you surrendering?"

She shook her head. "The word surrender stems from the ancient's word to 'give up.' I'm not giving up anything. So, I'm not surrendering. And neither are you. You haven't given up Valin. Or me."

His glared at the winged shapes above. "I've given up home. And Mother."

And if it would keep Valin from harm, then he would bow to the enemy a hundred times again.

"Have you truly?" He didn't understand the searching look she gave him, as she reached up to touch his cheek. "They'll be with you, even when you're not with them. Yes? In thought." She jabbed at his broad chest. "The ones you love always are. Even when they're far away."

Zefir cradled her closer. He didn't want her far away. Didn't want anyone far away. Certainly not fleeing to the sundisk, this 'paradise' the squad was always talking about.

Seren pointed to Mother's thopter. "I'd clean forgotten what her rage looked like. Look, Zefir. It's for you. Oh, she's altering, failing, but look at how beautiful the change."

Mother buzzed by, keeping the bomber in a tight circle as she stood in her seat. "Condition three!"

Zefir wished that he could see what reaction the enemy squad leader had to the vision of Mother making more demands. He couldn't help but offer up a hearty smile at how fierce she looked, her flight mask dangling from her face, sharp features creased in cold calculation.

Zefir grinned his broad dragon grin, knowing it frightened others. Mother is furious! Be wary, enemy!

Mother gestured in the flight-language for leader gives command, watch and act. "At my command, the first leader, second, and third of this squad will go as well. They will make certain you adhere to the conditions you've laid out. They will give their parole, and will not harm any of you or yours unless you break the terms we've agreed upon."

That hadn't been what he expected. Zefir heard Valin, still perched in his flight seat on Zefir's back, whisper a surprised, "No."

"Fair enough," said the enemy.

Zefir could hear the amusement in the wolf-person's voice.


He watched as three flyers—Nyru, Jarre, and Ferrei left the rigid lines of their own formation and followed the Wheelteeth flying toward the eastern mountain's rise.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"The Star-Tailed Fox" Read For Free at On The Premises!


You can read my short story The Star-Tailed Fox at On the Premises, where it won First Place for their theme of "Changes." 

You can read it online for free HERE.

While I'm proud of all my published stories, I'm particularly proud of this one, which is based on a true-life story my Grandma told me about her youth. Though she never got to read this story, I'd like to think she'd be proud of this one too.
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The Clockwork Dragon #5: Abominations

Part Five of Valin the Navigator and Zefir the Clockwork Dragon.


The ornithopter bomber dragon was gaining on Zefir, but only because Valin was pushing the whirling engine to its utmost; signal warnings blared; if he kept this up, the thopter would fall from the sky. But part of him worried that if he didn't catch Zefir now, the dragon would never be seen again. This woman who had him, who possibly spoke untruths to his naïve and trusting friend...no matter what the Inventrix said...

He'd lost the dragon's trust.

The nose of the thopter, pointed and triangular, touched the tip of Zefir's brass, flexible hide. The wing-like projections on either side of Zefir's tail tightened for a mere breath in surprise, slowing his steady momentum. Just enough.

Valin unhooked himself from the safety straps, knowing the Inventrix in the Second Control seat would take over flight functions without hesitation.

"Valin, what are you doing?" came her voice over his microcog ear-implant.

Balancing himself, he sprinted along the stiff, unbent neck of the mindless thopter—and saw just how far a drop it would be until he made an intimate greeting with the ground. Even still, heart in his throat, he timed the wingbeats of the thopter versus Zefir's hurried stride—

And he leapt for Zefir's tail.

His hands reached to within a breath of the tail; he scrabbled as if he could make the distance shorter—such reckless miscalculation!—but all that fell through his fingertips was air. Screaming, he began to plummet. The rush of the wind howled around his head, matching the terrified sound being torn from his throat. He wanted to close his eyes; he wanted to flap his arms to arrest his downward plunge.

He saw a flash of brass. And Zefir's face turned downward.

Then he closed his eyes as the tree tops seemed so much closer. The Inventrix's thopter wouldn't make it in time.

An astonishing roar rattled behind the bones of his face, and his eyes flew open. Though his eyes watered behind his flight goggles, he could see Zefir pointing down toward him like an arrow, wings tucked tightly against his side, his legs flat against his stomach. Closer now, Valin windmilled his arms, spiraling; the world was in his sight, then gone leaving sky, then the ground again.

The terror became something else, a certainty: he'd feel the impact, and every bone would shatter before he felt no more.

The top of the nearest tree was merely a man's height away when—

He felt himself being jerked upward, his chin hitting his chest with the violence of the motion. Something sharp grazed across his arm, but he didn't care. Looking upward through the dragon's claws, he saw the expression of terror on Zefir's broad face, felt the hot stream of breath puff from the dragon's brass nostrils.   

With his head still taught with fear, all Valin could think to say was: "Um, greetings."

#

The dragon wouldn't meet his eye, which was interesting in that Zefir's eye was almost the size of Valin's head. It wasn't until he felt air from the backstroke of Zefir's wings that he saw he was on the ground, that the dragon had released him; legs wobbling as if they couldn't hold him up, he staggered, feeling light headed.

Valin blew out a breath. No more falling. His friend had saved him. "Zefir I—"

A massive arm-leg circled about him, and then crushed him to the dragon's chest. The wings, whisper-smooth membranous brass, enfolded him as well; he could hear the rapid tick-thump of Zefir's remarkable mechanical heart, hear the swell of the dragon's ballonet lungs as Zefir attempted to slow his overtaxed circulatory system; Valin could feel the cooling liquid through the thin veins in his wings.

Then, those same wings pushed against him—hard. That snout bumped into his chest hard enough that Valin fell to the ground.

Expression wild, both fury and—fear? relief?—upon those strangely animalistic yet all too human features, Zefir loomed over him as if the dragon would stomp the Valin into the tall grasses of the valley plain. "You—you—idiot!"

Fair enough, Valin thought wryly.

"You could've...killed yourself!" Zefir pranced uncertainly from foot to foot, all four limbs making little hops, and his wings fluttering. "Why would you do that? Mid-flight Navigator changes are forbidden for a reason!"

He sounded like a techwork grandmere, stern and disapproving. And lecturing. Valin had to try hard to keep a wry grin from his mouth at the notion. Also because his mild amusement seemed to clear some of the lingering fear.

How to explain his actions? Well, all of them really. Including why he'd left off being Zefir's Navigator.

Opening his mouth, Zefir stopped him when the dragon let out a rumbling growl, and continued, "And you're no longer my Navigator! So you had no right, no right, to try that! How dare you! You—you-you—" Zefir seemed to struggle to find some sort of mean-spirited epithet, "you Forge n' Fire, Sun-be-damned fool!"

Ah, so Zefir, naïve though he might be, had indeed picked up some of the curses of the Navigators. Or more likely, Jarre had begun to teach the dragon how to, even though the man still felt awkward talking to a flyer.

Valin let out a chuckle, rising to his feet. Zefir's eyes narrowed, smoke curling from his mouth. Before the dragon could turn about, Valin placed his hand up to stall him. "Wait! Yes, you're right. I am a fool."

Another voice intruded on his next words, Valin could see the shadow of someone sitting upon the Navigator's seat through the membranes of Zefir's tense wings. "Silly boys, both of you. Zefir, let your Navigator apologize, then after we should be away. Mirena is close. Usan ila dreqi."

Mirena. The Inventrix's given name. Not that anyone had referred to her as that in over a century. She was simply...the Inventrix. A title, a single person, and a name. The only one that mattered for the Clan.

Zefir settled his wings back to his side, and Valin saw the nature of the Wheelteeth Inventrix, or rather former Inventrix of the enemy. And when she smiled at him with those exact same features of his Inventrix, Valin took an unwilling step back. His Inventrix never smiled, or if she did it was a snort or wry curl of the lips.

"Mirror-kind," Valin whispered, shuddering.

The mirror woman sighed. "I hope, dear Navigator, that there won't be any shouting nonsense about how there can be only one Clan Inventrix alive at a time, or yelling of 'abomination.' Yes?"

Mirror children happened infrequently in Valin's old techwork bloodline, which was proof that it happened naturally. But with Inventrixes, each one was grown in a vat-chamber close to when the old one would expire. An exact mirror. To see one alive at the same time, well, a surprised whisper of "holy metal an' forge" slipped out.

"Hmm, I see why Zefir likes you so," the mirror responded without a trace of mockery. "So adaptable. I'm guessing that's why Mirena chose you for her—tests were they?" She seemed in thought, a wistful smile still hovering over familiar features. "Impertinent, ah, yes, yes I see it. So appealing, your recklessness. Your wildness. Should've been weeded out in the blood, but here it is!"

They way she spoke, even the tenor of it, was so different from his Inventrix. She wasn't what he had been expecting at all. "You can relinquish the dragon now, mirror-kind. I'll not have him consorting with the enemy."

"Enemy?" Zefir snorted. "Seren wouldn't harm a gnat."

So he didn't know what she was. Or had been.

The mirror woman gracefully unhooked herself from the Navigator's seat, stepped upon Zefir's elbow, and leaped to the ground. Closer now, he could see that this mirror was the same age as his Inventrix. At least outwardly.

As she drew closer, he worried that she would attack him, but instead she touched his chest and then drew her ear down to it. Listening. "Ah, that's what she heard. Courage. Good, now—" and she patted him on the arm, "—up on the dragon and we'll be away! Mirena grows too close and Zefir will not leave you here."

"Will too," the dragon muttered. "He's not my Navigator. He wanted to fly a thopter instead. Now he has what he wanted all along."

The mirror—this Seren—blinked. "Oh! This is what all the fuss is about?" She took up Valin's hand, and though he had the urge to yank his fingers free from her person, she gently led him toward the dragon like an eager child. "Silly young ones."

Hesitantly, Valin met Zefir's large, round quicksilver gaze, the pupil large enough to engulf his head.

"Go on. Talk. Explain!" Seren encouraged, making shooshing motions at them.

He could see now what the Inventrix meant about this mirror's complete lack of guile being beguiling in and of itself. She patted Zefir on the leg, motioning to Valin. "Tell him, Valin, so he's not so sad. Or lonely."

Zefir—sad? Lonely? Because of him.

When Valin glared at her, wondering if she were collecting intelligence on the Clan, somehow, she plugged her ears with her fingers, saying loudly, "I'll not listen if it makes you feel better. Go on!"

Valin began dubiously. "Zefir, I thought you needed a more experienced Navigator than me. During the battle...I failed you. You're capable of so much, and my inexperience held you back. I thought that perhaps Jarre or Nyru should be your Nav."

"They didn't find me," Zefir stated loftily, curving his neck in a perfect S. "You did. Why would you think anyone is better as my Nav than you? I'm unique, and no one is more experienced at flying with me than you. Yes, with me. Not in control of me. Nyru wouldn't know what to do. She won't even use my name." Then the dragon snorted, blinking his enormous eye with the faintest snick sound of the pseudo-metallic crinkle of Zefir's eyelid. "Is that the only reason you said you didn't want to be my Navigator?"

"Yes," Valin admitted, keeping a wary eye on Seren.

Zefir grinned his dragon grin, flexing his wings, tail flicking in happiness. "Then come. You're my Navigator now and always! Seren fixed me so I can fly higher."

Valin blinked at the whole thing: nearly plummeting to his end, this odd woman who seemed like anything but an enemy, and Zefir happy again.

Adaptable, Seren had said.

Nodding to the dragon with a laugh, he peered off into the distance to see the thopter making a gliding landing.  

"Mother!" Zefir cried happily, before he glanced at Seren. "Oh, no. We'll fly away from her, Seren, I promised...Seren?"

The mirror woman stared at the thopter, her body stiff, muttering to herself. Her gaze seemed turned inward, as if in a daydream, or in memory. Slowly, she lowered herself to the grass, sitting like someone leeched of all power to move. Valin could see the Inventrix approach from the thopter, but Zefir leapt in front of Seren, shielding her. Even half-enclosed by Zefir's right wing, Valin could see the woman place her hands to her temples, squeezing her head.

The Inventrix arrived, grimacing as if in pain. "Zefir, whatever she told you about her being a threat to me is untrue. No, I won't lie. Mostly untrue. Don't fly off with her."

The dragon hesitated. "I promised her."

"Please, child," and both Valin and Zefir blinked to hear the Inventrix plead, "do not flee with her. She's been running long enough."

The Inventrix's legs wobbled, and she knelt in the grass. Her face was carved in exhausted lines. Tired. Infinitely tired.


#


Mother was singing softly at Seren's side, and Zefir's flanks were trembling with indecision. Seren was still rigid, though Valin helped to lay her body down supine in the grass, to Zefir's croaked, "Gently, Valin. Gently."

Mother never sang. Never hummed even during work. The squadron sang after every battle to remember the fallen. He hoped that wasn't what Mother was doing.

Worried to interrupt, Zefir nonetheless stepped closer, his head on level with the two mirrors of one another.

"Can you help her, Mother?"

Mother sighed, placing a shaking hand to her forehead. "There's nothing that can be done when she's in memory lock. It's a beneficial defect that we cultivate for my line, the ability to recollect exact memories at will. It's how we're able to create with such accuracy. She was born with the defect being stronger, and sometimes memory pulls at her when the present becomes too much." Mother placed a gentle hand on Seren's cheek. "I can see now it's only grown worse. It used to work to draw her back when I sang...but that was long ago."

Valin had that look of that was part fascination, part dubiousness. "How long ago, Inventrix?"

"Still calculating, Navigator?" Mother asked. "The questions we pose intrigue you. A puzzle to be solved. And how your wild mind lingers over it. Like I would."

His chin raised. As if she were challenging him. "Does she pose a threat?"

Zefir shook his head. Mother had said she didn't. Not really. "Of course not. Seren was only afraid of hurting Mother for some reason. She was crying and I didn't know what to do."

Valin patted him on the arm soothingly. His Navigator looked like he would ask more questions, but lapsed back into silence. Watching.

Seren breathed in slowly and exhaled in short gasps, but Mother touched her mirror's forehead. Mouth curled in confusion, Seren breathed, "Kirwen?"

Mother shook her head.

"Oh, wait, oh. No!" Seren struggled to sit up, but mother kept a firm hand on her mirror's shoulder. "Mirena, no! You're too close, and I'll drag you down with imun set na."

"Forth-hai an ilan," Mother said matter-of-factly. "I can handle our minds touching for a while, Seren. I'm strong enough now. No longer young and afraid. But it's better if we don't lapse into the inventor's tongue. It's too...logical. Too—"

"Easy," Seren agreed. "But I can still see inside your head, mirror-kin. If I enter memory lock when I do so..."

Zefir saw now why Seren had been so afraid.

Mother had told him while she was building the second version of his wings, before Valin had found him, that she considered gifting him with virul-microcogs, those tiny particles that would connect with another's mind, allowing him to 'read' them in the thousands of tiny ways the body knew emotion; even the elek-pulses in the brain of another would come to him like his own thoughts.

If Mother and Seren both had these microcogs, and their thoughts transferred between one another...he could understand only the sudden shudder that ran through him. It was well that he couldn't feel another person's thoughts like his own.

"Abomination," Valin whispered. Without rancor, Zefir noted. And maybe the way the Navigator's breath caught, a little awe. "Virul-microcogs were destroyed generations ago."

Mother snorted. "Come, come, boy. Who was it that destroyed them? Remember your histories. Or do they no longer allow sootfoots in class?"

Valin's spine stiffened, eyes narrowed angrily. "Your line destroyed them. Named them abomination." Before she could continue with her test—even Zefir rumbled in irritation—Valin spat, "Your line. Repeated over and over. So, I must surmise that if you destroyed them, then you—this unique you—rebuilt them."

"My predecessor actually. My predecessor did many experimental things to our own line." She shot Valin a tight-lipped smile as she gestured to herself and absently waved at Seren. "The greatest of abominations."

Seren sat up, frowning. "Stop raising his hackles, mirror-kin." The way the sound of her heart skipped, he could tell she was disturbed by a memory. "One need not be tested at every moment. And found wanting. I should know."

Mother looked away...chastised. Zefir held his breath; he'd never seen such a thing.

"We should go home," Mother said. "I'll not take no for an answer, Seren. Too long you've been cast to the winds. I'll deal with the consequences now, as I never could bear before."

The idea of taking Seren home with them made something bright light inside, and Zefir flapped his wings in eagerness. "Yes! Then I can fly with you, Seren, whenever I'm not on patrol, or practicing maneuvers with Valin."

"I'm quite happy out here with Neri," said Seren, hesitating. "I worry still about my presence with Mirena around...though it'd be lovely to fly with you...and it'd be easier to make you siblings."

Neri...

Zefir wondered where the brass wolf had gotten to when he heard her distinct metallic-sharp bark. From over the ridge, she came bounding, voice raised to cry, "Chase, chase, chase not-Zefir!"

"Not-Zefir?" he asked her as she skidded to a halt near his feet.

She bounced on her toes, pointing her nose skyward. "Not-Zefir!"
  
Zefir sat back on his haunches, looking skyward and he saw a formation of shapes. For a moment he wanted to bugle in happiness to see the squadron, only to realize the shapes were all wrong. Smaller. The wings made of pseudo-metallic feathers, stocky bodies ready to claw.

Ketch gryphons.

The Wheelteeth.

Zefir had to stifle a challenge-roar, but he felt a bit of flame flicker form his nostrils. He lowered himself, but without word Valin ran for the thopter. Zefir's heart stuttered in dismay only to soar again as Valin grabbed a pair of saddlebags from the bomber, turned back to Zefir and bounded up into his Navigator's seat. There. Where he belonged. Springing into the air, Zefir bolted upward, knowing without speaking what both he and Valin would do. They'd practiced the dive-bombing maneuver; now with Zefir's new diaphragm-ballonet, he could fly higher than the gryphons and swoop down through their ranks.

Zefir couldn't stifle it any longer. As they flew closer, seeing those ketch gryphons flexing their grapple-feet, he released the loudest roar he could muster.

A burst of searing flame came with it.
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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #4: Chase, Chase, Flee

Part four of Valin the Navigator and Zefir the Clockwork Dragon

"Now, I need a happy memory, yes, a pleasant one." Seren perched over Zefir's flight control panel situated on his back, hemming and hawing, half talking to herself, half directing her comments at the dragon.

Zefir, lying down in this small little cave in the middle of nowhere—it was cold, not heated from underneath like in Mother's laboratory—puffed out a sigh. "Are you certain? You have been testing for many an hour now."

When focused, this strange mirror-of-Mother became lost in her work, her thoughts. That at least was familiar, but occasionally Seren would lapse into a tense quiet, her gaze lost—she admitted inside her own memories.

"It must be that some of your memories and emotions affect your flying abilities," she said, waving a slender hand. "The way you interact with your Navigator, and he in turn interacts with you."

"That makes no sense," Zefir huffed, weary now. And bored. Unaccountably bored.

"It makes all kinds of sense, dear dragon. It makes you more than remarkable." She scrambled down from his back, lithe and sure-footed. Again, the hurried gestured. "Down to my level, Zefir, if you please. I want to look at your optical sensors."

Zefir puffed out a warm breath into her face, and she barely blinked. He bumped his nose into her chest, but her hands didn't come up to pat at him. "You've already done so. But minutes ago."

The unfocused nature of her gaze changed. Sharpened back to attention. "Of course. Yes, of course. But we must continue, yes, before...before I lapse. It hasn't happened yet today, has it?"

"This morning," Zefir admitted. He didn't like telling her, for the truth distressed her. "Only for a few minutes, Seren."

"Ah, hmmm." Was her only answer, looking so thoroughly dejected that Zefir allowed himself to nudge her a little more forcefully with his snout. A bare smile graced her tense, sharp features, and Zefir could hear the thrum of her heart, knowing that she wasn't truly happy; the smile was for his benefit.

"Let's fly," he suggested.

That would break the spell of her obsession and would relieve his own boredom. He'd left before Mother could install a new diaphragm-ballonet, but Seren had said she could do so with the equipment she'd squirreled away from her last Clan, before they had cast her out. And she had. He could already feel that his breaths came easier, and when they'd flown together, flying as high as he could—Seren letting out a girlish whoop—it had seemed effortless.

She tucked a stray strand of graying hair back behind her ear. "If I don't focus, Zefir, I'll never be able to make you brothers and sisters. Not in time."

She still wouldn't say in time for what. She sounded so grave when she did. But he would like to have siblings, to have others like him.

"Then you can ask me questions when we're in the sky, to see if they affect my flight," Zefir suggested. Reasonably he thought.

"Yes, yes...makes sense." She hugged his snout, pressing her face into his broad cheek—his entire head the size of three of her whole body—and Zefir held his breath in case a flicker of flame came from his mouth. He didn't want to hurt her accidentally, but he enjoyed it when she hugged him. "Clever, Zefir. Flying makes you happy. Me too. Maybe I should've been bred as a Nav." She chuckled at that. "Then again 'Blood is Purpose.'"

"Valin wasn't born a Navigator, and yet he was. Maybe you could've been too." Zefir didn't want to admit that he didn't quite understand the bloodline purpose of the Clans, or why no one ever changed functions from their birth-duty. He shook his head before she could ask any more questions about Valin. "Come! The sky is a bit gloomy today, but I can counter the high winds. Or we can, rather."

Neri lifted her head from her resting spot, her pseudo-metallic ears swiveling in their direction as Seren put on her flying leathers and helmet, saving the warm-wrap mask for last. The brass wolf made a deep woof, wagging her thin mechanical tail, her voice repeating, "Chase, chase, chase?"

"Yes, chase," Zefir said brightly, his own heavy tail flickering. It seemed the only word the creature said. "Chase Zefir!"

Turning on his haunches in the tight fitting space, he bounded out of the cave, leaping with his wings tight to his frame. Upon hitting the soft, mossy earth, he left a furrow in his wake, leaping up again as the wolf followed with happy barks. Forgetting himself, he wrestled with Neri for a time, her teeth nipping playfully at his nose before he realized that Seren wasn't sitting by the old, weathered tree, nor was she watching them from the cave's mouth. The brass wolf sniffed at the air, tense.

Had Seren decided to leave them? No, something was wrong.

Neri barked. An unhappy sound. Whining.

Zefir opened his wings and hopped up to the cave, dashing inside. Seren had fallen to the ground, her eyes wide and lost, so lost, her hands above her in claws as if something had frozen her. Zefir's microcog-bearing heart stuttered, and he held his breath, feeling cold. Not sadness. But fear. He tried nudging her, but she began to scream. A high, thin sound of terror that rang inside of his head. Her hands flailed at the air, her claws trying to rake at him—no, not him.

What could he do? He needed help, but he didn't know where to take her. Exile was a serious thing. Valin worried about exile a lot and had suggested that if exiles were caught, they were...killed. If she was from one of the Lesser Clans allied by blood to the Cog Clan, then he couldn't take her to Mother.

But there was no one else.

Zefir gathered her up into his hands, making sure to keep his sharp claws from her fragile frame. "Seren! Seren, please!" He shook her, just hard enough to make her head roll around on her neck. "Wake up!"

She froze again, her body unmoving. A series of words tumbled from her, that strange language she sometimes spoke without realizing it. Fear clawing at his insides, making his breaths short and raspy, he leapt with her in his grip. Wings outspread he leapt to the gnarled old tree, using it to launch himself skyward. Away from the cave.

His internal temperature wild, he gained all the altitude he could, clutching her close.

Mother would help. She had to.

And if anyone tried to hurt Seren, anyone, then Zefir would strike at them. No matter who it was.

#

"She has him," the Inventrix snarled and Valin could hear it over his voice-directing implant. The microcogs buzzed in his ear with the violence of her next words: "She has him. I know it. Darketna ila jarsareth!"

Sitting behind him in the Secondary Control seat, the Inventrix adjusted one of the straps securing her to the ornithopter bomber dragon. Its stiff head pointed fixedly in a single direction as Valin adjusted the trim, the upslide as they ascended a half-a-degree, and noted how taut the flapping wingbeats were. Nothing like Zefir's beautiful membranes, or his effortless timing of each downstroke of his wings.

And of course, the thopter wasn't aware. It wasn't alive. It wasn't scared.

Valin had been searching for him with the Inventrix for over a week. They camped in the valley between the Sunset Mountains, the Inventrix barely sleeping but for an hour each day—one of her natural abilities, she assured him. But Valin had barely eaten even their meager rations, and slept even less than the Inventrix. His mind was dull from the constant fear, the gnawing sensation inside.

If he's broken beyond repair, it's my fault. And then the Inventrix's words: If he's destroyed, it's unlikely I can build another. And if she managed to build anew...it wouldn't be Zefir.

Now, the Inventrix was insisting that someone had stolen Zefir. That meant they could find him, and take him back. "Who?"

Her voice was a growl over the sound of his new implant. "An Inventrix of the Wheelteeth."

The enemy. The leader of the Wheelteeth Clan had his friend. "Then we must call in one of the squadrons and coordinate a quick, surprise attack. Then we can extract him..." If he wants to come back.

"Terribly bloodthirsty of you." She sounded amused, and perhaps just a touch disappointed. "You learn that from the Navigators? Or has it been hiding inside you all this time?" When he breathed in to respond, she interrupted, "I know. It's your worry for him. But it's likely she's no longer residing in their stronghold. The signs...yes, they've been in place for quite a while."

"Signs?"

"Lissteri," she whispered. Again, those strange words. Not that Valin knew dialects from the Lesser Clans, or even Wheelteeth speak, but it sounded odd.

"But why would Zefir willingly go with the enemy?" Valin asked.

Though possessed of a child-like mind, Zefir was quick and clever. He wouldn't turn tail and become a traitor...would he?

He glanced at the front leg of the thopter, looking at the Inventrix's reflection in the shiny metallic surface so he could see her reaction.

"Seren is..." She looked down at the ground far below, floating by, a pained grimace on her face. "She...doesn't obfuscate. Has no filter between what she's thinking and what she says. In many ways she's like Zefir himself. Almost childishly naïve. And no doubt Zefir feels she's a kindred spirit, for it's difficult not to be charmed by her lack of guile."

Valin shook his head, wondering how the Inventrix had learned of such intimate knowledge of the Wheelteeth leader. "So she's charming him. To use him."

"No," the Inventrix barked. "She's an innocent soul. Bright as the sun. Still though, she's possessed of the obsession of my breed. The sheer brilliance of her works have surpassed even mine, to the point where even I've been unable to fathom the nature of her inventions, though nearly all of them serve no real purpose. But she doesn't possess the leadership qualities, the cunning, or the deviousness required to rule. A defect in the blood. Along with another defect..."

In the manner of her breed the Inventrix had also manipulated Valin into coming to the next conclusion. He spoke it with distaste to have been so easily led. "So the Wheelteeth Inventrix is not their leader." 

The mere notion of that seemed difficult to grasp. Inventrixes, one per every two generations, were the leaders. How could it be any other way?

"No, merely a tool," said the Inventrix, her voice pitched bitterly. "A tool that should've been ours...if not for me. And my cowardice."

Valin glanced over his shoulder at her. The Inventrix a coward? He frowned in puzzlement, but she stared back at him evenly. It was Valin who broke the connection with her gaze, wondering if that too had been another test.

"Everyone fears," she said quietly. "And all too often we act on that fear. With regret most times."

Like casting away Zefir for his own good?

Peering downward, she snatched up her pair of farviewer goggles, sliding them over her eyes. Adjusting the farseeing dial, she pointed. "There. Something brass. Too small to be Zefir."

Without direction, Valin aimed the thopter downward, perhaps at a greater angle than necessary, but the Inventrix's words had rattled him and he needed that plunging sensation in his stomach to clear his thoughts. When they descended low enough to buzz the treetops with the thopter's six pot-bomb gripping feet, devoid now of their deadly explosive oil, the Inventrix ordered, "Land."

Unlike Zefir who could gracefully hover and land, the thopter needed a little more gliding space. Landing it with its clamp-feet out, he turned to see the Inventrix already leaping from her perch behind him—the height of two men to the ground, but she took the impact with a little grunt and sprinted on.

By the time Valin had set all the controls to auto-standby and crawled down the side of the flyer, he could see the Inventrix kneeling before a wolf-like creature made of brass.

The creature—seemingly made out of the same metal as Zefir's hide—perked its ears, whining, but wagging its tail slowly. Its sky-blue eyes were fixated on the Inventrix's mouth, listening.

"I can't believe you still work," the Inventrix said, patting a rough spot on the wolf-thing's side. "She's kept you all these years..."

Valin took two steps forward and the creature lowered its head, giving him a wary stare.

"He's a friend, Neri," said the Inventrix. "Where is she?"

"Chase," the wolf-mechanical barked, tail wagging slower.

"Yes, but where, Neri? Dezan lis eseth."

The wolf's snout raised and it peered skyward, making little hops as if it could launch itself into the air. "Chase, chase, chase..."
   
Valin looked upward to the west and saw the distinct outline of the dragon. Clutching something in his curled, sharp claws; even though Zefir flew at a low altitude—unable to go higher without Valin, or another Nav—his wingbeats were a flurry of hurried motion.

"Chase, chase, chase!" the wolf said, a whine escaping. "Chase, Zefirrrr!"

#

Zefir kept his grip on Seren as tight as he dared. Thankfully, though his heart was grinding and his wings were aching, Seren's stiff, unmoving body relaxed, and her blank—so blank!—stare ceased. Slowly, his companion looked about her, blinking in confusion. She touched one of his talons gently, fixated once again. "Oh, like sickles they are. What would you need that for? Battle, unfortunately, yes, yes."

"Are you well now?" Zefir asked anxiously. "What happened?"

"The memory locks last longer," she said calmly, half to herself. "No way to prevent them, at least not that I've devised."

"But you were scared! And screaming." Zefir slowed his frantic pace, seeing how quickly the distant mountain caves of the Cog Clan were growing closer. "I didn't know what to do."

"Frightening recollections sometimes occur during my memory locks. I quite lose control of my body." She offered him a wan smile of assurance. "I'm sorry I didn't warn you, dear dragon. Not all my memories are pleasant."

Zefir wanted to ask what horrible recollections would have her reacting so, but he worried that raising such a question would only force her back into that state.

She turned her head to try to look upon the ground. "Where are we?"

"I was...taking you to Mother."

Her eyes widened. She squirmed in his grasp, pushing at the joints of his fingers. "No! Zefir, turn back!"

He didn't understand her sudden distress, but he halted in mid-air, hovering though it made his entire body ache, his control panel making warning noises as his breaths puffed hot.

"Please, you can't take me there!"

He began to fly in a circle, indecisive. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Even if you are an exile."

"It's not that...I can't be near her. Quezan arseht be tomadamn!" She touched his fingers, eyes shining. "Please, even though you don't understand, please just turn back. I can't be around your Mother."

Mother wouldn't hurt the mirror of herself...would she?  

"For her sake," Seren said at a whisper he almost couldn't hear. "Not mine."

Zefir didn't understand, but with a graceful backsweep of his wings, he turned and began flying back for their hidden little cave.

"I don't want to hurt her," said Seren, shivering. "Not when my very presence can do so. Do you know what it feels like to stay away from someone because it's better for them?"

He began gliding and with his most serious expression, he nodded.

Valin was better off on a thopter.

"Then no matter what happens to me," she said, tears forming, "don't bring me near her."

Sedately, he flew back the way he had come, holding his breath lest anything mar her calm, her brow furrowed in thought. Then, while Zefir glided to keep the silence, Seren began to cry, tears quietly streaming down her knife-edged cheeks. He'd never seen anyone actually cry before. After the Wheelteeth gryphon attack, after losing so many Navigators, even those remaining Navs hadn't shed tears for the lost. The dead. Jarre had told him, still looking awkward to be speaking with Zefir, that Navs didn't weep because the lost ones were flying into the sun—to a better place filled only with joy. Zefir didn't know how a hot orb of light could be a better place, or how anyone could get there when they were dead. The thought that he could lose Seren to the sundisk made something hitch within.

Valin could be lost too. And Mother. The rest of the squad. He didn't want them to fly into the light forever.

His eyes stung—it hurt. Some sort of liquid began leaking from the corner of his eyes, trickling down his cheeks, and as he looked below, droplets of its clear, oddly viscous liquid dripped off of his snout.

Seren let out a hitched, sad laugh. "Oh, you beautiful creature. I never would have given you such a burden, such a gift as this." She reached up, smiling her sad smile, and touched the liquid, gently wiping it away from his brass cheeks. "You're crying, Zefir. She didn't tell you that either, did she? No of course not. But that she gave this to you means that she's changing. And perhaps that's not a good sign."

Zefir hoped she wouldn't lapse back into speaking to herself, but Seren patted his hand, and he loosened his hold on her. Quick as a sparrow, she sidled through the gap in his fingers, clambering up his shoulder—Zefir feeling a fearful cold sensation in his chest—and hooking a foot into his harness, bounded up and came to rest in the Navigator's seat.

Calmer now that she was secure, Zefir could feel the slight adjustments she made, and his energy level gained. Flying faster now, he saw a thopter bomber running on the ground to get enough momentum to launch skyward.

Shaking of the last of the liquid from his face, he narrowed his sharp gaze on those in the Navigator's seat of the bomber. The familiar forms made him stretch out his wings for greater height and speed.

Zefir knew Valin had wanted a thopter. And now he had one.

Mother pointed skyward, right at Zefir. She flickered her fingers in the Nav sign-language: Descend. Regroup. Return to squad leader.

Turning away from her—from Valin—Zefir flew onward as fast as he could.
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