Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #15: Uncompleted Designs


Zefir halted in his tracks when he saw Neri lying inert on the lab table. For a moment he wasn't certain if this was part of one of his false memories.

He swallowed around the sensation in his throat—breathe, breathe, he could breathe, yes the breath was there. Three minutes, fourteen seconds. He closed his eyes and opened them again, seeing his wolf friend still vacant-eyed on the table, her chest panel open to the world...and empty.

Ferrei stood next to him, arms crossed over her chest as Kirwen stood in silence. But he moved around them both, spying Seren with her microfyer goggles strapped over her eyes, a steady stream of nonsense pouring from her lips. The half-shrouded dragon sibling had grown since last he saw, and now its head was revealed—more slender with a pointed snout, its eyes still closed in sweet repose, its brass hide shinier than his own, not pockmarked or scarred from time in the air, crashes, or from battle. How pure the dragon sibling looked, and a surge of jealously mingled with the rage that heated his breath enough that a flicker of flame burst from his lips

He thought he saw the dragon's longer and thinner tail flicker, saw the half-finished wings twitch—wings that once finished would be twice the length of his own.

Furious now, he leaped forward, grasping Seren; he wanted to shake her, to crush his fingers around her so tightly that it would be hard for her to breathe. His fire-heated breath puffed in her face, and she blinked, the microfyer making her eyes look too large.

"Why?" he demanded, forcing her to look at him through those bedamned goggles. "Why would you hurt, Neri? Godsdamn you Seren, she loved you and this is how you repay her? To rip her apart like some—some useless mechanical?"

Seren blinked slowly, unable to focus on him. "Not love, no, no. Close but not quite. I was saving her...part of her will live on in the sibling dragon. Yes, so close to the awakening! And there, hopefully I've made it to love. To cherish. To see the beauty in life!"

Zefir growled, "Why are you such a blood-ridden monster?"

That made the Inventrix open her mouth in surprise. "A-A-A monster?"

"Damn you," Zefir said, voice hoarse. "Do you even realize what you've done to her? To me? You're sitting there as if it was easy to take her heart away, as if she meant nothing to you." He gritted his teeth against the need to shake her, for his fingers to squeeze tighter. "Do you know that I now question the reality of everything around me? It's crushing me, Seren, and you did this. And you care not a whit."

Her eyes were brimming with blood tears, magnified a hundred fold. "A-A monster...?"

"Yes," he hissed. "A monster. You tinker with our lives, but we mean nothing to you. To any of you." Zefir cast a look in the direction of Kirwen, but he couldn't help but feel some resentment for his Second as well when he gestured to them both with the sweep of one wing. "We're tools, to be used and expended if it suits you. I'm Mother's battle dragon, another tool in this endless battle. I'm Kirwen's prisoner, useful to her only because she may now have her own destructive mechanical. And to you—" he pushed his snout close to Seren's face and scented something very wrong, the fetid smell of an ill body, "—to you I'm an interesting specimen to pull apart. Just three minutes and fourteen seconds of living in the ten hells. And you gifted that to me."

Kirwen darted forward, a protective determination in her stance. "Child, put her down. She didn't harm you intentionally."

"I'm no child," he said coldly. "Not anymore. She saw to that. You've all seen to that. You're all monsters, all three of you."

"N-No," Seren whispered. "No, no, no...I'm not a monster." Her voice rose to a shriek; she tore the microfyer from her face and hurled it across the room to shatter, gaze turned inward. "I'll not be your predicted monster, my predecessor. I won't betray my mirrors!" Slowly, she studied Zefir's dragon face as if realizing for the first time that he was gripping her. "Oh, I'm slipping. Dearest Forge Gods, let me finish my work before the end. I'm not ready and neither is she."

His clawed hands were shaking as he carefully set Seren down. His claws had pierced through her heart as she leaped—

Seren touched Neri's inert form on the table, and collapsed to her knees on the stone floor, clutching at her chest as if it pained her. "Zefir, I only wanted to give you another like yourself, so you would never be lonely again. Because I won't be with you for much longer. Neither will your mother. And you'll outlive your dearest Navigator, just like we of Inventrix blood outlive our wards." She gestured to the sleek dragon snout poking from beneath the dust cloth. "This is my last gift to you. And to-to Neri. For when I'm gone, she would've broken, never to awaken without me. Now at least some part of her will live on."

Zefir didn't want to feel guilt when her eyes watered and a blood-tinged tear trailed down her cheek. He wanted to cling to tightly to his anger, and try as he might, he couldn't. The internal fire died.
  
"And yet," Seren said, "I'm letting the inventor's need crush me. I-I'm so sorry, Zefir. Please tell me I'm not a monster."

Kirwen spoke up from her corner. "You're not a monster, lissteri. Quoc il donenc. Varess was manipulating you, as she did with us all."

"Not a complete lie. I made the Trial and broke us apart. The only thing that ever mattered was being of one yet three." Seren shook her head wildly and curtly gestured her mirror away. "It's too much. You don't need to absorb my pain."

It seemed the two mirrors were in silent communion with one another before Kirwen nodded reluctantly, and turned to Ferrei. "She won't hurt him. But if you're still duty bound to the dragon, make certain he doesn't touch her in anger again."

Ferrei nodded firmly and half-signed so it shall be, clearly wondering if the Wolf Leader could read it.

"And you, dragon," Kirwen said sternly. "I may have claimed you as one of my wards, but I won't stand for you distressing her so. You may push her into a memory lock so deep that she'll never be free of it. She too has her own false memories to wrestle with, so don't be so quick to judge." Her voice dropped, croaking in a whisper, "Tell her she's not a monster."

Her own false memories? He remembered the awful sound of Seren's screaming while in memory lock; he shuddered, finally understanding that manner of fear. Zefir swallowed around a thick sensation in his throat, his wings fluttering like malfunctioning tremors. "What happened to you three? What is the Trial?"

"Just..." Kirwen breathed out slowly as if to steady herself. "I know I haven't earned a favor from you, far from it, but if you still care for her in the slightest, then tell her she's not a monster."

Seren was gently stroking the brass nose of the dragon sibling, but the voice that came from her was startlingly cold and venomous. "When the tests begin, Seren, you'll see where your nature lies. And I think with your joyful innocence and reliance on the virul-microcog bond, that you'll be the true monster of the three. I'm so glad I created a third instead of just two, my descendant. Watching you try destroy Mirena and Kirwen will be most illuminating for the next growth."

Zefir stifled a cringe. Is this what he would be like living with the false memories? Would he be muttering to himself, fully engaged in what wasn't? Or was this a true memory she recited?

He was reluctant to touch her, lest his anger reappear to frighten her. But when she muttered so strongly to herself in another voice, it was best to add touch to take her from the past. He pressed his nose into her chest, gently—oh, so carefully—and again scented that decaying smell, acrid and powerful. Zefir wondered how long she truly had left. He carefully listened to the rate of her breath, the beat of her heart, and the hundred sounds of the blood and organs within, but they all sounded stilted. Malfunctioning.

"I'm sorry, Seren," he said, feeling the tingle of tears threatening. "You're not a monster. You're my friend. You know that, don't you?"

A weak smile was his only answer for the span of ten heartbeats. Her arms surrounded his snout and she buried her face against him, saying, "I do, dear heart. I do. You're the best thing that's happened in my life, and I've lived a very long time. I only wish I'd met you sooner." Slowly, she raised her face from him, her pupils oddly star-shaped, as if they had splintered. "And that's why I'm doing this. I won't let you live like me—a life of generations, lost and without connection. Your sibling is close to awakening. And then you'll teach her how to fly! Oh, how I wish I could see her first flight."   

Zefir turned his attention to Ferrei, who was close to the sibling-dragon, staring at it with a frown. His Second lifted the dustcloth and said, "There's no Navigator control panel."

"Of course not," said the Inventrix dismissively. "How primitive a concept. No, her Navigators must bond with her through virul-microcogs. She gets to choose. She makes the virul 'cogs within her own heart-case, and can gift them with just a quick nip or cut of a claw. Transference, then the connection. Beautiful."

Like the mirrors had with one another. How...telling. But it would also mean that Kirwen already had virul microcogs in her blood and they would easily allow her to become the sibling-dragon's Navigator. Would his sibling know battle as her first flight?

Zefir wouldn't let that happen.

"Maybe you and your sibling," said Seren, "will finally bring back the true purpose of our ancestor's Navigators. To chart and learn. To explore the unknown places. Oh, how glorious such a thing would be."

Ferrei snorted her derision.

Zefir's response was cut short as a young man in a techworker suit, panting for breath, whispered quickly in Kirwen's ear low enough that even Zefir's enhanced hearing couldn't detect it. With only a nod, the Wolf Leader spun on her heel and left their solitary lab with rapid clicks of her boot heels.

Remembering his true purpose here, and hating it, he lifted Seren with his wing while Ferrei moved to inspect the chemicals the Inventrix had been using. Folded in the thin membranous mesh of his wing, Seren grinned, completely engrossed with running her fingers along his cooling-veins. "Beautiful."

Zefir wept quietly to himself; the scent of death was clinging to Seren and grew stronger with every heartbeat. "Seren, I hope you'll tell me what happened to you."

"Allow me to finish her wings..." She shuddered, still clutching to one of the pseudo-metallic bones of his wing. "Then, maybe in the telling you'll find a way to end this all."

#

Valin made the 'blink slowly' signal to indicate that the next piece he picked up would be the one he needed Jarre to pocket in his place in the line. At Valin's point in the production line, it would be too obvious if he took something from the rotating belt. The Lyth boys circled around them, the same men who had reacted to the threat Valin represented to their grandmere, and glared at the squad with a hawk-like eye.

It made the timing difficult, but production on the line had been increased—desperately it seemed. The brand new, gleaming ketch-gryphons were housed in the back of the cave, checked by every person with a minimal knowledge of techwork, and summarily moved from the forge caves to the launch ledges higher up in the mountain. Valin had lost count of the number of them somewhere around one hundred and fifty. The clangs of the assembly line echoed louder, the gears grinding at an unnatural pace, and the steam puffing magma-hot.

Over it all, Elder Lyth called for replacements in the line, her small, wrinkled face creased in displeasure.

Here was the last piece they would need to fix the bomb and its timer. Valin closed his eyes in a slow blink and then picked up the piece, examining it—even though it wasn't a piece his side of the line would've reached for. Jarre grabbed the piece in his place on the line and at the same time lifted one that had clearly not made it through the forges intact and was thus a dud to be tossed; the true piece made it into his pocket—

But one of the Lyth men darted forward, and caught at the massive Third's wrist.

"What is this?" the man demanded.
         
Jarre's muscles flexed and he attempted to shrug off the man without drawing attention. "What's it look like, Wheelteeth? It's faulty and I'm throwing it in the return pot."

"Not this one," the Lyth man growled. He was large enough himself to keep Jarre's hand in place, his own impressive muscles straining. "The other one you had."

"Well," the Third said with false pleasantness, "I wasn't born a techie, so it they all look the same to me."

"Spit on a' fire," the Lyth cursed. "You lie, Cog man scum. Empty your pockets."

"Like ten hells I will, boy." Jarre swiveled his wrist and plucked it from the Lyth's hand, taking on a stance that suggested the Third was ready to take a swing.

The Lyth man made a gesture to others—likely blood brothers and cousins—all of whom were of the same size and stature.

Nyru moved from her place in line and came to stand between the two men. "Why are you accosting him? So, he made an error. Leave him be and we can all get back to this blood-ridden work."

"Quiet scum," the man barked. "I wasn't talking to you."

Valin tried to pretend that what was occurring wasn't worthy of notice, but he wiped away cold sweat from his upper lip.

Nyru lifted the scarred corner of her mouth, causing that unnaturally dark grin. "But you are now, boy. Where I come from a youth such as you doesn't speak in such a way to those older than him. Even if you can't seem to hold yourself in a respectful manner, even for the enemy, then heed my words: you're speaking to me now. I'm his elder, his Leader. What's your name, Wheelteeth?"
            
"Lyth Zareth," he said, raising his chin. "And I'm Director Second, so what occurs in these forge caves concerns me. Tell your underling to empty his pockets."

Damnation and hells, Valin thought, frantic. If the man really was Director Second, he would know that the pieces he found in Jarre's pocket were less than innocuous. But maybe he could convince the young man that the pieces were meant for something other than the timed bomb device. Perhaps a code breaker.

Jarre gritted his teeth, eyes assessing his opponent. Even Nyru was coolly regarding the exits, still standing with her arms crossed as if unconcerned.

If Valin couldn't convince the Lyth, then their only hope of escape was gone. Bile rose into his throat, his heart pounding as he left the line and approached the young Director Second. The youth—likely no more than twenty—eyed him with the same black color of eyes his own mother possessed, the man's nose and chin, while in a masculine configuration, reminded Valin of his own fourth blood aunt.

They say blood always tells. Or maybe he simply wanted to see some familiar features in a man who's blood was his own.

"You know what we're trying to do, Director Second," Valin said evenly. "You can't really fault us for attempting to break the lock code."

Zareth's dark eyes took his measure slowly. "Ah, the Cog scum techie. You failed then, because my Elder made those locks. And no one, not even as a test, could ever break them." He gestured to his blood brothers to form a circle around Valin's squad. "Tell your fellow Cog scum to empty his pockets."

Jarre shared a hopeless look with him, his hands curling into fists. Valin shook his head a fraction, hoping neither Jarre nor Nyru would do something desperate. They would fail if they chose to fight their way out.

"Jarre, show the Director Second," said Valin, his voice nearly cracking with tension. "They know. Empty your pockets."

Jarre spat on the floor as one of the Lyth men around him started forward to physically divest him of his stolen goods, but the man paused as Jarre grinned. The Third reached into his pocket, withdrew the pieces, and tossed them across the stone floor.

Zareth's eyes narrowed on the pieces, lips in a tight line. "What did you hope to do with these? You couldn't break it with this, you fool."

"It isn't in breaking the code lock, but in circumventing it," Valin said, pointing to each piece, one large connector. Forge Gods, let him convince the boy of this lie. "Keep the code on a rotating signature and there's no need to break it. But then, a simpleton boy like you wouldn't think of such a thing. You weren't born to this. I live in this world of creation, and you...you just put together the same shit tech that your old ones did and think it's the finest product."

It was clear Zareth didn't want to admit to the enemy scum that he didn't understand Valin's tech; the hesitation that marked its way across the young man's brow gave Valin hope that this ruse would work. Prick the man's pride so he wouldn't see the truth.  

"I doubt I can even explain it to you so you'd understand," Valin scoffed.

Another voice intruded, and without excessive volume her tone carried, "But I understand perfectly."

Elder Lyth frowned up at him from her small, hunched stature. Her gnarled fingers pointed at the pieces. "This would make part of a timer. But for what, boy?"

Valin's mind whirled. Even if she was a Wheelteeth and not born to the forge caves, she was still Director, and any lie she would be able to see through. He bit his cheek, desperately thinking of how to turn this to his advantage.

"Your code changes after a set period of time," Valin said, knowing it for truth after having obsessed over the lock for hours, days. "Clever, Elder Lyth. Very clever."

"Don't mock me, boy," she said. "And don't think I'm stupid either. Now, tell me what device you've made and I won't have to get irritable. And it has nothing to do with my code locks."

His heart was threatening to hammer right out of his ribs. "You're simply jealous, honored Elder, that one will finally best your codes. Let's say that the winner gets to make flatbread for the other. We both know how best to bake it."

She frowned, hunched back rigid with unease. "If you were not of the Cog scum, I'd welcome such a challenge, young one. But for now, I'm afraid that your secret is at an end." She turned to her Director Second and said, "Zareth, implore our busy Leader to come. I believe we must search their prison for a bomb."

Zareth tried to stifle a shocked intake of breath, but he bowed low to his Director, and was off without question.

Valin shook with the force of his hopeless anger. He'd failed.

He would have to hope that no one would think of where to look for the hidden device.

Or who was hiding it.  
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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #14: Last Gift


"It's clear that you don't trust us," said Nyru, hands at her side. Her stare gathered weight, her scar contorting her facial muscles into an unreadable expression. "And that's why, Seven, I can't allow you to undergo this mission with your dragon."

Valin was trying very hard not to raise his voice, but the increasing pressure building just beneath his sternum demanded attention, his blood simmering. "Again, First Leader, if the appropriate chemicals aren't there, Ferrei would be unable to name any of the other options that may work."

"I'm aware of this," she said, raising a brow at his continued insistence. "But I'm also aware that you didn't trust your Leaders enough to give them, no—me, all of the information you had on the enemy. Information that's crucial to us."

Valin frowned. "Information you may not have believed, not when you suspected me of consorting with the Wolf in treason."  

Nyru wasn't one to yell, or scream at her underlings, which had always made her more intimidating in Valin's mind. A simple quirk of her mouth or narrowing of her eye conveyed her displeasure in a way that all of the fierce shouting of other squad's Firsts could never match. 

So when Nyru raised her voice, Valin dipped his chin, stifling a wince. "I've never suspected you of consorting with the enemy. Whatever Ferrei's rantings about you, I never gave it serious thought. Not for a moment. Not even now when I have a perfectly good reason to." She exhaled loudly through her nose. "Good Gods...mirrors of our own Inventrix. And you thought that wouldn't be important?"

"Not to our imprisonment, no," Valin said. "To our Clan..."

It would rock the Clan's foundations to learn that the enemy was lead by mirrors of its own Inventrix.

But how would the Cog Clan react to learn that some of its bloodlines were comprised of children stolen from their enemy?

His blood would be considered tainted with the enemy strain. It would certainly tear them apart.

"To our Clan," Valin continued, "knowledge of the mirrors would cause panic. Mistrust of our own Inventrix. Maybe even calls to vat-grow a new one. Or to never grow another. Just as the Wheelteeth have done." His voice lowered, though he was aware it was impossible to discuss this without the rest of the squad listening. "This information could destroy us. Even this squad is a model for being destroyed by suspicion and anger. What if the bloodlines rose up against one another? Or Mirena?"

Nyru hissed that Valin had dared to call their Inventrix by given name.

Valin pushed, his voice insistent. "What are you even now questioning, First Leader?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I'm questioning that you would choose to make the decision on what's best for the squad and for our Clan on your own. I'm also aware that Zefir did so out of fear that we would mistrust him. I'm starting to question what both of you must think of us that you would hide such things."

Zefir was curled in the corner, awake and alert, but he lowered his head in embarrassment; Ferrei and Jarre sat at his feet, Ferrei the clear winner of this hand of cards. Usually their card playing was rather boisterous, but all three were pretending not to listen, uncharacteristically silent.

"Perhaps another of my failings," Nyru muttered. "Another blood-shame. I've allowed this to happen." She straightened in her stance, mouth a grimace. "Right now, with your mistrust and your overprotective nature toward Zefir, you would compromise this mission. I've made my decision, Valin. I'm asking that you believe that I'm doing what's best for our squadron."

He pressed his lips firmly together, but nodded stiffly.

"Don't ask me again, Seven," Nyru said with finality. "When next the Wolf comes for Zefir, Ferrei will go with him. And when the rest of us are sent back to the tech line, we need you to tell the rest of us which parts you need us to steal."

Valin nodded again, keeping in an angry exhale.

Nyru made the dismissive Nav gesture for go about your normal duties.

Uncertain where to go to be left alone—curse this damned prison for its lack of privacy—Valin returned to his cot, his entire body sagging. He wanted to sleep, but knew that would be an impossibility. He pressed the heel of his palms against his eyes, head aching from his pounding pulse. The false darkness beckoned to him soothingly.

He was slowly aware of the creaking sound of someone settling on the next cot.

He took his hands away, blinking at the sudden light. Ferrei had her legs crossed on the cot, her elbows casually on her knees.

Valin bit back on a fierce demand to know what she wanted. Techies were often less than direct out of an ingrained sense of propriety, but Navigators were the opposite. One of many things he liked about Nav society. So he would be direct. "If you believe this is finally proof of my betrayal, then—"

"No, not that." She picked at a rough spot on the cot, unable to meet his eye. "I didn't..." She growled to herself. "Blood n' hearts bedamned. Shit. Piss on the sun."

Valin raised his brow. That was another thing he liked about the Navs. Their carefree attitude with cursing. It was almost their third language.

"I find myself apologizing for much lately," she said, raising her gaze as if in challenge. "And again, I've wronged you. But I must know...if I hadn't said those hateful things against you, or suspected you of the worst crime...would you have told our First everything?"

He sighed. "Please don't turn this into another tally mark for blood-shame."

Ferrei frowned. "I've many marks and owe many debts now. If you'll absolve me of one more—"

"Techies don't collect honor-debts the way Navigators do," he said, waving the notion away in a discussion finished sign.

She began to speak to him purely in Nav sign so rapidly that he couldn't understand any of it, though she was clearly upset. He placed up his hands in the be at peace signal. "I still can't read signs that fast."

Exhaling in frustration, she made one last series of signs. Heed my words. "It's easier to speak of shame with signs. For the most part we speak of blood-debt between one another through sign only."

Though trying to be respectful of the Navigator ways, he didn't want any part of this. "There is no debt, no shame between us, Second. Whatever this is, or you think it is, I absolve you."

She seemed to relax, but immediately straightened from her casual pose. "Then let us speak on your blood-shame."  

Valin opened his mouth to speak, but only shocked sounds made it out. "My shame?"

"You hid crucial battle information from your squad and Leaders," she said, still uncomfortable. "Back home this would lead to exile. But we aren't back home. And I know why you chose as you did."

"You do, do you?" He tried not to sound bitter.

She tapped her fingers, clearly wishing to add meaning with Nav sign but refrained. "It wasn't only because I accused you...or because you didn't trust us. It's because you wanted to protect us, just like you protect your dragon."

Valin blinked in surprise at so candid a statement from his Second. And her perceptive conclusion.

She made the we are the shield sign in an elegant and reverent motion. "And that more than anything makes you one of us." Then she added with a wry grin, "Stupid. But one of us."

He couldn't meet her eye. Such acceptance from one who had hated his very presence—his very being—made that angry, heated knot in his chest lessen into a dull smolder. As Ferrei remained silent, neither looking away from his gaze nor fidgeting uncomfortably, the smoldering embers of his anger dissipated.   

She held open palms to him and then made fists, and crossed her arms over her heart. He wasn't certain what such a sign meant until she said, "I'll keep Zefir safe. Of that I vow to you."

Valin made the acceptance sign. "And that, Second Leader, is the one and only vow I'll ever hold you to."

#

Kirwen peered at Zefir from behind her mask, standing just inside the doorway of their prison. "I'm afraid I must insist, child. I know what befell you, but I need...she will only take measurements, I swear it."

Zefir tried not to let his nervousness show, because the Wolf would hear it the same way Zefir would. But Ferrei assured him that appearing nervous was fine, needed even for their little lie to the Wolf Leader. "I-I won't go with you, Leader Kirwen. Not after...I can't be alone with her."

His fear was real and crawling up his throat, so he had to swallow. He truly didn't want to see Seren again, not when—

"I calculated the distance to perfection," Seren said, her arms outstretched as she made to leap for him from the precipice of the mountainside. The winds buffeted her open flight jacket, the techworker jumpsuit tight against her too thin body. Gashes from her climb covered her hands and arms, her fingers raw. "I can't stay here. I have to run, run, flee like I always do. Never in one place too long, or they'll find me. Kirwen will want to take me back, and Mirena...my thoughts will collide with hers too strongly and it'll slowly kill her. Please, Zefir. Don't move, or the numbers won't match, match..."

Zefir hovered in place, hoping that with each wingbeat the little dip his body made wouldn't—

She leapt for him and before he could catch her, Seren's body crashed against the rock with the sickening sound of shattered bones—

He grunted, snorting, blinking his eyes of the (false?) memory. "You won't take no for an answer...You'll threaten my squadron if I don't come with you."

Kirwen's expression was hidden behind the wolf mask. "Not if you don't force me to break my oath. But time is short, and if you won't come, I'll do what I must."

Ferrei was standing in front of him, one hand curled into a fist, while the other was placed on Zefir's chest as if she could shield him from Kirwen. That small bit of contact rooted him to the present.

"Either I go with the dragon to make certain no one mettles with him harmfully again," Ferrei growled, "or you can walk right back out of this prison and leave us here to rot in the tell hells. Threaten all you like, Wheelteeth."

Kirwen's wolf mask turned slightly in Valin's direction. "Why not send Seven?"

Ferrei's voice raised, and she pounded her fist on her chest hard enough to make a primal thud. "You'll look to me for answers, you bedamned Wheelteeth demon, not my subordinate. I'm Second Leader of this squad, and the dragon is our most prized possession. Too long we've allowed you to interact with a mere wing runner. And a blood-ridden techie at that."

Zefir could hear a hint of wry amusement in Kirwen's tone. "I see. So your First sends one of the Cog Clan's oldest and most trustworthy bloodlines instead. What are you? Let me guess...Rathe? No, you're too hot-blooded for that. Ah, wait... Quarethstra. They always bred spirited ones."

Nyru stood with her arms crossed over her chest and her unreadable scarred grin-grimace. "We know of your own blood. Why keep the mask on, mirror-kind?"

Those stony wolf-eyes flashed. But Zefir could scent the strange burning copper scent of Kirwen's anger. She reached up and tore the flight mask from her face, throwing it across the room where it landed perfectly at Nyru's feet, no doubt calculated to perfection. The First simply stared at it as if unimpressed, though Zefir heard the shocked lurch to Nyru's heartbeat.

It was one thing to be told the enemy leader was a mirror of their own Inventrix, and quite another to see it firsthand, especially partially rendered in pseudo-metal.

Ferrei sucked in a slow breath, and her blood-cousin clenched his teeth against a response.

"You know nothing of my blood," Kirwen snarled. "Only what you've been fed by Mirena. You're blind, all of you damned Cogs. And even when you're not, you deny what's in front of you." This last seemed aimed at Valin, but she returned her eye to Nyru. "So, blood of Kerlan, you're one of the youngest Navigator bloodlines, aren't you? The first to be First for your line? What, six generations?"

Nyru's cheek jumped. "I'm the third of my line to be named First Leader."

"And do you know the name of your line Originator?" Kirwen's stance was rigid, the guards on either side of her uneasy.

The First picked up the wolf flight mask and examined it coolly. "The name of my Originator isn't for the ears of an enemy. Even one that looks like my Inventrix."

Kirwen strode forward, violence in every step. The copper scent boiled off of her skin, pricking Zefir's nose. Though Ferrei was still in front of him, Zefir gently moved her aside; he paced to stand directly behind his First, his wings slightly outspread. He lowered his snout to keep just over Nyru's shoulder, his worry at the Wolf's anger seeming to vibrate within until he quivered.

"Kerlan Xenthi," said the Wolf, baring her teeth. "And you look so much like her." Her entire body trembled with the force of her growing rage, her eyes pits of black hellfire. Her voice lowered dangerously, "I'll have them back. I'll have you all back, or die trying."

Zefir puffed a breath at Kirwen, hoping to distract her the way he'd learned with Seren. "Leader Kirwen?"

She blinked, her eyes losing a bit of fire. "Yes, child, what?"

Those had been Seren's distracted words when she was deep within her obsessive mindset.

He tucked his wings back in a hunched movement, and stared her in those fierce eyes with his chin tucked downward. Trying to look as innocent and frightened as he could. Like the child she called him. "I'm ready to go now. Our parole and your oath will still stand. But I'll not leave without one of them going with me."

"I find it odd your Navigator hasn't even bothered to accuse me of breaking my oath," said Kirwen. "What has him so silent?"

He knew she would find it suspicious that Valin wasn't insistent on going himself.

For Kirwen's benefit, Zefir cast a terrified look in Valin's direction. Though now not purely for show as another of his worst memories threatened to consume him, pushing into his thoughts—

Valin's eyes were glassy. Empty. No heartbeat thudded in his chest, and yet his Navigator's mouth formed words: "You killed me, Zefir. I will hate you as I rot away. I should've never flown with you. I should've helped your Mother tear you apart to make a better battle dragon. A faster, smarter, vicious mechanical beast that would obey me, not some idiotic, cowardly child."

—until he tamped them desperately back down.

Valin would never say that.

"I-I can't be around him," Zefir said wretchedly. "The worst of the false memories are...are..." He swallowed. "Of him."

Not completely a lie. And in this case, he hated that it was so true.

But Zefir pushed on, hoping she would believe him. "I've renounced him as my Navigator."

Valin hid his shock well, and he turned his back on them all, hands clenched into fists.

"I see." Kirwen clenched her teeth, the cords of her pseudo-metal neck stood out. "Then so be it. Bring the Quarethstra hot-blood. But do so now."

With Ferrei striding in front of him, he followed the Wolf Leader back to the laboratory that had been the scene of his ruination.

#

Seren stared at the complexity of the dragon form on her worktable. Her mind whirled with half a dozen calculations (a mere half a dozen, so she must be exhausted). Already its sleeker form looked faster, its not-yet-finished longer wingspan would be able to go distances without overheating or exhaustion, though she needed to check Zefir's wings for reference.

And though she hated it every time she looked upon those feet, she'd given her creation claws (petite ones, but still claws), so Kirwen wouldn't try to take her dragon away from her before she was completely finished. Such was her growing fear that in the middle of building, she would whirl around looking for her mirror, fearing Kirwen would be standing right behind her.

The dragon would be smaller than Zefir, petite and sleek in comparison—

Zefir. How she'd ruined the child he was, forcing such pain on him that his innocence and trusting nature was damaged forever.

She wouldn't do the same to her creation.

Seren patted the narrower nose (which would help with stability during tight twists in the air), and peered at the closed eyes. Soon. Very soon and she would finish her dragon's heart-mind, which she could do easily with some reference on how Mirena had made such a device to love. Oh, Seren had tried her best to make such a thing happen, but she wasn't sure if it would work.

Time was growing short. Her mind was fraying at the edges, and the inventor's obsession was so all-consuming that she could rarely tear her mind away from it for even two minutes.

No, for three minutes, fourteen seconds.

She would finish this dragon sibling, or die trying.

It would be her last gift—to Zefir. To Valin, whom she must find. Yes, and make him swear to look after her dragon when she was gone. Yes, she must find him.

Seren almost plunged back into other thoughts when she heard a familiar whimper and sensed the brass wolfling mechanical stir at her feet. Kirwen had been right to place Neri in with her, as the wolf always knew when to nudge her from her deepest thoughts.

"Chase?" said the wolfling hopefully, nudging her hand with her warm nose. Brass ears twitched uncertainly, and she whined again.

"Soon, my pup, I'll not be able to chase anything." She knew the wolf wouldn't understand, and tears threatened, but she pushed them back with her Inventrix's iron will crumbling. "The end is near, darling companion."

Neri's own simple heart-mind had been built to be trusting and loyal. To bond, because Seren had desperately needed such a thing after the Trial, after their three mirrored minds would never be together as one again. Neri would never bond to anyone else, and though the wolf had taken a liking to Zefir, it wasn't the same. Neri would expire without her, the wolf's heart-mind shutting down into eternal rest modus without the presence of her creator.

It wasn't quite love, not that, but wasn't trust what she needed for the dragon? She could alter it, yes, alter...but the base would be there...

Seren's mind was so aflame it was painful. It would be better this way. Now the hot blood tears spilled as she gestured the wolfling up on the workbench.

And plucked her oldest friend's heart from Neri's chest panel. 

Some part of the wolf would live on in the dragon.
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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #13: Shadowfall


Jarre sat on his cot next to his blood-cousin, and Ferrei was staring at Valin's work intently. When Valin grunted, or sighed, and placed another piece to the side of him on his cot, she would wince.

"It's salvageable," Valin announced. "I can restore it, but we'll need a few new parts. As long as they put us back on the line, we can finish the mechanical part of it."

Ferrei let out a relieved breath, while Jarre nodded solemnly.

"It's not his fault," said Jarre, glancing in Zefir's direction.

The dragon was still sleeping heavily, and Valin couldn't help but count Zefir's breaths, keeping an eye on the color of his brass hide. So far, none of the squad had asked him for more details on what had happened to Zefir, but he could see the tension in Ferrei, her gaze straying more often to the dragon with a pinched expression of mixed confusion and concern.

Ferrei sighed. "I know. He thought the danger was real. It's just strange to think that the flyer would try to...to save me."

"Why is that so difficult to believe?" Valin asked.

She looked uncomfortable. "Because...I thought of him as no more than a mechanical abomination, and said so to his face. I've been less than kind to him, and still he willingly threw himself into what he thought of as very real danger. To sacrifice his own life for mine. And he didn't even hesitate." She made a gesture of helpless embarrassment. No, the Nav gesture meant more than that. It was an admittance of shame. "Were our roles reversed I wouldn't have done the same for him. So, you see, Seven, your dragon has more Nav blood in him than I do."

Jarre studied his blood-cousin, and made a reverential sign and touched his forehead in a series of elegant motions. "Sometimes the sun shines a light where there wasn't one before, Ferrei."

"Then Its shown me," she said quietly, "where the shadows abide." She placed one hand in front of the other, casting a shadow over her palm.

Valin had always been slightly uncomfortable with his ignorance of the Navigator's beliefs, so he didn't copy either of the Quarethstra's gestures. He wanted to tell his Second that he was pleased she was beginning to see the truth of where Zefir's heart lay, but feared that she might interpret him as being condescending or judgmental.

"He's of the squad," Jarre said firmly, watching Zefir as the dragon twitched a wing. "You might yet erase your shame, blood-cousin, by helping him with..." and he made a gesture Valin didn't recognize, but the motion was furtive, and Jarre's voice had trailed off to a whisper.

"I don't know that word," Valin admitted.

Both looked uncomfortable, but Jarre said, "We don't discuss it with outsiders..." Then he shook his head. "Apologies, Valin. I didn't mean to imply—"

"No offense taken." Valin glanced at Zefir again, listening to the sound of his breathing, no longer hitched. "But I would like to know what it means if this concerns Zefir."

Jarre looked over at Nyru's cot; the First Leader was sleeping again, back turned to them all, and Jarre frowned at their First in worry. "This is something a First should explain to you, but..." The big Third signed, We fear it is consuming our First too. "Now that responsibility falls to me."

Valin waited in respectful silence.

"We call it shadowfall, or battle shock." Jarre paused and met Valin's eye squarely, releasing a pent up breath. "It's something that was supposed to have been bred out of our lines, thus it is considered a blood-shame. But it still befalls many of us. What you must understand is that shadowfall is something that follows you, not just a memory, but a way that the horrors of the past come calling to become your present."

"And you think Zefir has shadowfall," Valin said carefully.

No one knew of Zefir's false memories, but it was apparent that jumbled memories were a part of battle shock.

"He reacts like many of us do," Jarre admitted. "I can't sleep next to my mate some nights for fear I may strike out upon waking."

Valin remained quiet, wondering how he knew so little of his Third.

"After the battle of the River Valley," said Jarre, his voice tight, "some nights I...I can still hear my old squadron screaming. I can hear my wing crying out for help, pinned down on the ground, unable to fly away. We were picked off by the sun-cursed gryphons and their aerorifles as if we were caged prey." He shook his head as if he could cast the memories into a hidden place. "Only three of us survived. But it marked me." Jarre's expression was haunted. "I once thought that I was no longer darkened by shadowfall. But...it deepened when both of my fellow River Valley survivors fell from the sky in yet another firefight."

Valin slowly became aware that the cadence of Zefir's breathing had shifted. Not the long and deep breaths of sleep, but those of wakefulness. So, his friend had been feigning sleep while listening, perhaps too scared or weary to do more than eavesdrop.

"And they were both in my wing," Jarre continued, voice hoarse. "I lost all of them. All over again. And that night the memories were so painful I..."

Ferrei elegantly touched both of her wrists with her fingertips, the gesture Valin recognized as giving praise to the memories of those fallen and flown to the sundisk. "You need not speak on your darkest time, cousin."

Valin heard Zefir holding his breath; when he glanced in Nyru's direction, he also saw that her sleepy breathing had altered.

But Jarre lifted his chin, eyes glinting. "It is no shame, not to me. It took me a long time to realize that. But it is to everyone else. To the Elders and those of the bloodline who try to ignore it. We keep it quiet, we hide it as best we can for ourselves and loved ones, but that only makes it worse." His voice raised, and Valin blinked at the intensity of his Third's tone. "It is no weakness, or lack of courage. It's no defect. It's only being entrenched in the shadow of what was and desperately fighting for the light."

Valin could see one of Zefir's quicksilver eyes watching them from beneath the shadow of his wing.

Clever, selfless Third Leader, Valin thought.

Jarre knew that the dragon had been listening, had spoken his words not to Valin—but to Zefir.

"That night," Jarre said, his eyes lost in remembrance, "I considered leaping from the takeoff ledges. I wanted to flee to the sundisk."

Ferrei placed a hand on her blood-cousin's shoulder.

Jarre gave her an affectionate, but wan smile. "It was my young cousin here, newly placed in my wing, who found me. It was Ferrei who told me there was no shame in my loss and sorrow. She told me that if I leaped and I kissed the ground, that I'd never get to kiss my mate again, not even in goodbye."

Zefir made a small hitched sound and his wings trembled.

Jarre's eye flicked in the dragon's direction and back to Valin. "In the darkest hour there shone a light, and I grasped at it. Some of our people don't, or can't. But many live with it as I do."

Zefir was still huddling within himself, still curled into a tight ball. But the dragon croaked, "How?"

The Third Leader lifted himself from the cot, and came to sit on his heels at a distance from Zefir that wouldn't make the dragon react. "I won't lie to you and claim it's easy, or that it won't be with you always. But you're not alone, Zefir."

Zefir covered himself again with a wing and shuddered. "I don't want to lose any of you. But I keep seeing it happen."

Valin saw Nyru shift slightly on her cot. She too was listening. But perhaps their First was unable to act through her own shadows.

"When you're ready," said his Third quietly, "you can speak to me of the shadows. Whatever thought you have, of guilt or remorse, know that I will listen without judgment. I promise you that."

Zefir uncurled himself and rose to his feet with aching slowness. His quicksilver eyes were a strange off-color, and Valin reasoned it was likely from his weeping. That dragon body shuddered, his wings quaking with a faint grinding noise, his jaw clenched tight. "I-I...can't."

Valin worried it would send his friend over the edge if he spoke. But Jarre nodded and made the signs for I accept your words. "Then if you wish to return to sleep, rest well."

I killed the boy he was. Seren's wounded cries echoed in Valin's thoughts. And he knew it was true, that this would indeed mark the dragon forever. But would it crush the spirit that made Zefir who he was? Would the friend Valin knew and loved—yes, loved—never return?

And if that were true, then Valin would never forgive himself for being unable to stop it.

"Can I...?" Zefir stared uncertainly. "Can I sleep next to you? In between the cots?"

Valin's eyes burned but he held in a breath to steady himself, blinking up at the stone ceiling. Ferrei shared a look with him and they both rose to move their cots, making space for the bulk of the dragon. Without discussing it, Ferrei began to place the cots in line with the points of a star-shield with their First at the apex, as they would've if they were flying in formation-five.

When Zefir had curled up and settled himself in between all of them, his eyes fluttered. 

Jarre sat back down on his cot and said, "When you awake, I'm challenging you to a game of cards. After all, you can't keep losing to me."

Zefir snorted, eyelids heavy. "I've won sixteen times, and you've won four."

Jarre's smile had returned, and the big man chuckled. "Who's counting?"

"I am. Best out of twenty. And I'll win again. You're a sore loser, Third Leader."

Valin let out a hitched laugh that grated on his own ears, a sound of terrified relief.

There was still some part of Zefir's spirit left. And here was proof.

#

Zefir didn't pray to any of the deities that his squad did, not the sundisk Itself or the Forge Gods of the techworkers. But he offered up thanks to whatever luck had made it so the false memories didn't accost him while asleep. And so, he wanted to remain asleep to avoid the flashes that burned through his thoughts while awake. His body resisted him, feeling rested and hale; his wings no longer ached and his mechanical heart pumped the right amount of coolant through him, his breath no longer hitched and painful.

Feigning sleep yet again, he listened to his squad, painting a picture of them in his mind to keep the false memories at bay.

Valin's voice was flat and even, as if any emotion had been leeched from him. "—and after we repair it, we still need to find the right chemicals. I know Elder Lyth will never allow me in the chem caves...I had another idea, but...it isn't an option."

He could hear Ferrei's held breath, the cadence of her heart one of nervousness she no doubt hid well. "I'm guessing, Seven, that your idea will put one of us at risk."

"It would involve..." and his Navigator's voice dropped, "Zefir. And that's why it isn't an option."

"Why would you need the dragon?" Her voice dipped lower.

"He was kept by the Leader in an independent laboratory." Valin paused, and Zefir imagined that his Navigator was looking in his direction.

"I see," said Ferrei. "In the lab are the chemicals necessary for the firebomb."

No sound from Valin. Perhaps a slight nod.

Ferrei said, "You could convince the Wolf that you won't allow Zefir to return to the lab without supervision in order to uphold our parole and her oath. She will still want to have him studied, even if it's by high-level techies."

Silence fell between the two for the span of many heartbeats.

Zefir had memorized the sound of Ferrei's heartbeat even in the most dire of circumstances. When she acted on a final decision, the Second Leader's heart-cadence changed, became stronger. "Give him the choice to say no, rather than simply making the decision for him."

"I can't ask it of him," said Valin resolutely.

"If you won't ask him, I will." Valin made sputtering noises of angry surprise, cut off as Ferrei said in her commanding tone, "This isn't only about your guilt, Seven. Don't lie to me and tell me you don't feel responsible for what happened to him. I've seen that look on many a Nav's face after their comrades have fallen. Ten hells, I still try not to blame myself or you and the dragon for Denaru's end."

Zefir could detect the faint scent of Valin's anger, but could hear his Navigator shift uneasily on his feet.

"This could be our way out," Ferrei said, her footfalls suggesting she'd stepped closer to Valin. "Our only chance. We're crumbling, Seven. All of us, little by little. Our First can only see her own shadows of loss. Jarre is...worse off than you think. He's learned to hide his own shadowfall well."

"And you?" Valin asked quietly.

She released a slow, steady breath. "I too am unraveling. Just like you, Valin."

That was the first time Ferrei had ever used anything but Valin's bloodline name.

"Look at me," she insisted. "My only joy in life has been stolen from me. From us all. The wind. The sun. Flying free. And you," she said, "look at you, Valin."

Valin let out a cynical bark of a laugh so unlike him that Zefir cringed.

Zefir opened his eyes. Valin and Ferrei were standing huddled in the far corner, the hated firebomb device between them.

She placed her hand on Valin's shoulder, her fingers digging deep into the muscle beneath. "They're breaking us. And they don't even have to do anything. We're caged beasts ready to either tear ourselves apart or to lay down and wither away."

His Navigator's eyes were lusterless. "I...can't. I won't ask him."

Zefir rose to his feet and tucked his wings against his back. Both of them noticed his movement and stepped away from one another as if caught doing something underhanded. But Zefir paced forward, spying Jarre at his usual post by the door, his mind clearly elsewhere, and Nyru on her cot staring blankly up at the stone ceiling.

His squad was crumbling.

But he couldn't shield them from themselves. To repair or destroy—Three minutes, fourteen seconds—We are the shield.

Zefir glared at the firebomb for a moment and breathed in slowly to keep away—

Face creased in acceptance of her fate...the firebomb burst in a deafening explosion.

He shook his head, tucking the memory desperately back down into the recesses of his thoughts. "I'll do it."

Both of the Navigators looked guilty to have been overheard. Valin's haggard face creased in a crestfallen expression. "I won't let you—"

"It isn't your decision," Zefir said firmly. "You're my Navigator and friend, Valin, now and always. But you're not my keeper."

Valin shook his head. "I beg to differ, Zef. You don't understand—"

"Of course I do," Zefir said heatedly. "I know what's at stake. I know that my squadron can't be prisoners and still remain the squad we are. I know that the Clans seek to destroy and conquer one another, to the bitter end this time. And if I don't act, then nothing changes." Zefir saw the result his words had on his Navigator, Valin's pained expression falling close to despair. "What happens to me isn't your fault, Valin. No matter what you think or what Mother told you. Being my Navigator means that we work together, not that you make all of the final decisions. I'm no simple thopter without a mind or will."

Valin nodded wearily. "No, that you are not. It's only that you don't understand all the risks. You're too...innocent."

"You said yourself that I was growing up. I'm no longer the simple child I was." As Zefir spoke those words, he realized the truth of it and didn't lament that he was different now. He remembered something Mother told him once: Innocence does not prevail in the face of experience. "I'm of this squadron. And I'll do anything to keep us safe. So, I'm doing this."

Ferrei's wry smile threatened to curl into grin. "First flight, last flight."

"First flight, last flight," Zefir intoned.

"No," Valin barked, thrusting a finger at both of them. "None of this Nav 'til the end shit. Not for this. If we go in and our plan fails, or they want to tinker with you harmfully again, we retreat. We find another way."

Ferrei frowned. "That isn't your decision either. It's a Leader's decision. I'll tell you when to retreat."

The scent of Valin's anger increased, an acrid stench that Zefir exhaled quickly from his nostrils; Valin's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "Zefir isn't to be sacrificed like one of your thopters or hawklings, Second Leader. You may be willing to place him in harm's way without giving half-a-damn, but I won't let that happen."

"You forget, Seven," Ferrei said, voice crystal sharp, "that those thopters and hawklings you think we sacrifice so easily have Navigators riding them to their end. There's a reason that we have Firsts, Seconds, and Thirds, and that's because we're capable of making the difficult decisions. I once called you a coward—"

"Try it again," Valin growled, hands clenched into fists, "and see how you fare, Second."

"—but I know now that's untrue." She held up a hand in the calming be at peace sign. "You would willingly leap into danger yourself. It's only for your dragon that you fear, and that does foul your decision making. Zefir is part of our squad and I'm treating him as I would any other in my wing."

"I don't care," Valin said, every muscle fraught with tension. "You finally think you see Zefir as something other than a piece of machinery. But you don't. If you did you wouldn't be arguing with me."

Zefir wanted to interject himself between them, but realized that Valin still wouldn't listen to him. His Navigator was acting like an overprotective wolf mother with her wolfling in tow. And it was out of fear. Valin wasn't treating him as an equal, but rather as a child in need of safeguarding. 

Wouldn't Zefir argue if the positions were switched and it was Valin who would be placed back in the hands of the mad Inventrix's whim?

"Your fear for him is clouding your judgment," Ferrei said, lifting her chin. "For that reason do we have Leaders, and that's why you will listen to me. I'm ordering you to—"

"Order me?" Valin made a series of curses with his hands, fouling the language with his inexperience. "Or are you blaming me for our failures, for our capture? Then yes, blame me for the death of your mate. Accuse me of cowardice and treason, Second, because I know you don't trust me. But don't you dare order me like I'm some useless, idiotic sootfoot you think is so lowly. And if you dare to order Zefir, I will—"

"Enough!"

Zefir started at the powerful sound of Nyru's voice.

Ferrei stiffened, her back ramrod straight at attention. Jarre also straightened from his casual slouch against the doorframe. Zefir didn't know what to do to show his obeisance to the First, so he settled for sitting on his haunches, his head lowered respectfully to her level.

Nyru's leather flight jacket was rumpled from her constant sleeping in it; her eyes were bloodshot, but now sharp with displeasure. The scarred half of her face was pulled taught in a thin slash, her frown more than frightening enough that Zefir hunched his shoulders.

Valin looked ready to open his mouth to argue even with his displeased First, when 

Nyru made a slashing motion with both hands. "Shut your mouth, Seven Valin. Don't open it again 'til I give you leave." The same glare turned to Ferrei who stared straight ahead. "The same goes for you, Quarethstra Ferrei."

Valin's eyes flashed in anger, but he held his tongue.

"Whatever personal problems you have with your Second," Nyru said, voice icy, "you set them aside when your Leader gives you an order. Am I clear?"

Valin trembled with the ferocity of his anger, his mouth in a thin line. "Respectfully, First, you don't understand—"

"I understand only your defiance of your sworn Leader, who in no way is required to argue with you about her decisions. I'll take no exceptions on this, as I would for anyone, so don't complain I'm singling you out because you were born to the tech lines. If you can't handle directions from your Leaders, then I'll not hesitate to cast you from the squadron even in this bedamned prison. Have I made myself understood?"

Valin gave only a curt nod of his head.

"And as you for you, Second," Nyru said in the same chilly tone with which she'd addressed Valin, "why wasn't I informed of your plan?"

Ferrei hesitated, her eyes flickered to the floor and remained there. "You were otherwise indisposed, First Leader."

"You've obviously mistaken me for someone who swapped their brains for sun-drenched shit. I could be sent to the tell hells and you will still inform me of any new operations before they're carried out. You'd do well to remember that, Quarethstra."

Ferrei made the quick and simple affirmative gesture. Zefir was surprised to see his Second's mouth twitch against a pleased smile, the sound of her heartbeat one of excitement. Glancing at the big Third, even Jarre was fighting to contain broad grin.

And he knew why.

Our First has returned, Zefir thought, feeling the same giddiness as the Quarethstras.

"Now," Nyru said, turning to Zefir. "You."

Zefir's wings trembled to be addressed by a displeased First, but he ducked his head in acknowledgment.

"I don't send my wing runners into the fray without accessing their battle readiness first." She gestured that Zefir should follow her to the opposite corner of the room, and he trailed after her. Her voice lowered when the others were far enough away. "You must tell me what the Wheelteeth truly did to you before I can decide on what action to take."

What would the squad do to find out that he was complicit in Seren's actions to make another battle dragon? How could he explain to her that he not only cared for the Inventrix, but that he desperately wanted dragon siblings? Nyru wouldn't believe that an Inventrix, even a mad one, wouldn't make a copy of him without his more frightening battle traits.

But even worse would be telling her about his false memories. "I..." He shook his head.

She nodded with the gravity of her station. "I won't blame you that you can't bring yourself to trust me with your pain. I...deserted you. All of you. In your greatest time of need. Especially yours, Zefir. I only hope that one day I will regain your faith in me and I can erase the shame."

Zefir didn't tell her that he hated their idea of blood-shame. Why were mistakes and pain always painted as shame? "A shield needs five-points, like the stars who are the sun's little cousins. It is enough that all five points are here again."

Her lips quivered, her brow creasing. "You know, for someone your Navigator thinks is a child, you're incredibly wise."

Zefir dipped his head in acceptance.

"But I can't in good conscience send you back to the sun-cursed Wheelteeth without knowing how you'll act or why. Or worse, what the Wolf Leader plans to do with you that has you so in the shadows. Tell me, Zefir, and we will proceed with Ferrei's plan. Remain quiet, and we will find another way even if the ten hells threaten to sweep us all down."

Zefir hesitated for a long breath of time. This was their best chance of escape.

Three minutes, fourteen seconds. Breathe in, and out. 

Then he told his First everything.
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