Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #11: The Importance of Time and Dreams


Seren's mind had never been so aflame—the ideas, calculations, and diverse sketches had never been so complex, so enthralling, so all-encompassing. She juggled all of them, following new formulations—sixty at a time—to their inevitable endgame, while simultaneously sketching the mechanical outline of Zefir's heart, trailing her thoughts gleefully through that chaos of wonder.

Zefir's chest panel lay open before her, and she trembled to think of what she'd find upon exploring his inner workings...and how she could improve on each function in the dragon-sibling even now still growing on her workbench.

The dragon she would build would be her last invention, her best invention. It would be intelligence and sorrow and love and harmony and beauty—

"It feels...strange," Zefir admitted, peering down at his open chest plate. "Mother never let me watch her work. Always made me sleep through it."

Seren couldn't interpret the individual words, only the general meaning when so much else pulled at her mind like a veritable riptide. She wasn't certain of the words spilling from her own mouth (was she giving assurances?) or what their meaning was, but the dragon nodded.

"Are you certain you need to stop my breathing? And my heart?"

Was there fear in that tone? Tearing her mind away from the powerful need, she focused enough to say, "I have to take apart a piece of your heart-mind, and put it back together. It won't take long."

A scrunch of that dragon face, the expressions so human-yet-not. Oh, how she'd make her own dragon with those wondrous expressions.

"What happens if it takes too long?" he asked.

Of course it wouldn't. The very idea was ridiculous.

A massive clawed hand—how she detested those claws!—reached for her and gently touched her shoulder with a single finger. "Seren?"

"Your circulatory system—also your cooling system—has a small backup, so the rest of you can remain active and viable without your heart doing its work for a time. Your body temperature will remain stable for three minutes and fourteen seconds without your breathing, which would interfere with my work on the heart." At the nervous click of his claws on the stone floor, Seren added, "You may lose consciousness for a time, like your fall from the sky when your diaphragm-ballonet wouldn't expand to give you enough breath."

The dragon frowned and his voice buzzed deeper, "But what happens after those three minutes?"

Sometimes she spoke the truth in a direct way that disturbed others. With her mind so absorbed by the need, words tumbled out in a jumble. "You'll begin to overheat, your circulatory system will shut down, some microcog nodes could burst causing failure of some nerves, it will feel suddenly like you're suffocating—"

"I-I've heard enough," he said, hoarse. Ah, how the saliva analogue reacted to his emotional state, causing his roughened voice. "Just...promise me you can do it in three minutes."

"Three minutes, fourteen seconds, I promise. I can count it in my mind. I'll just partition that countdown into my background thoughts. An old Inventrix thought-exercise, yes, every Inventrix remembers that." At his dubious frown (how magnificent such an expression on that dragony face) she picked up one of her clock timers. "Here. See. Yes? That way you can see the countdown too."

Seren eagerly grabbed up her thinnest tool and placed on her microfyer goggles, adjusting the magnification of the lenses.

"Now, if you don't lose consciousness..." It was growing hard to concentrate on communicating in a language other than the inventor's speech. Oh, the clarity yet complexity of that language, the beauty of multiple layers of meaning in a single syllable.  "Uthu dir aln. Your head and mouth can move, but everything below that will be immobile. You can't talk. No doubt it's an odd sensation, so don't fight it."

There it was. The heart-mind. The microfyer adjusted to her pupils contracting and—

"Seren?"

Frustration bubbled to the surface with enough force that it surprised her. More proof of her failing. "Zefir, dear, what?"

"I want Valin to be here..." Though she couldn't see him with the goggles attuned to micro-size, she detected fear in his tone this time. "If something goes wrong."

"Nonsense," she cast aside such a notion. What a preposterous idea that anyone other than another Inventrix could keep up with the speed of her mind. Even Mirena so long ago could never do so. The gift of her altered blood. "Now hush, dear one. Start the timer. And..."

And the outer world disappeared. Seren was enthralled by the organ of Zefir's heart-mind, looking at each node—sensory nodes, memory nodes—oh, how they were connected so organically!—and emotional nodes, yes, yes, they must be that, how they grew and grew with his experiences, his new memories, ah but there must be a node for Zefir's wondrous love and trust; she searched for it, taking apart more and more pieces with her micro-tools, resisting the need to tear the entire engine apart—but only barely. Her head pounded in pain as her thoughts built a diagram of his inner workings. 

It became harder to deny the need to tinker, to alter and see the spark jumps between nodes...

Chaos, beauty, so organic, growing, growing; over time this heart-mind would collect and discard memories like any other being...

Time.

Time?

Seren consulted her memory-timer, and gasped. It couldn't be. It had to be wrong... but she had never miscalculated. She tore off the goggles and her sight blurred as it was reduced to normal proportions; blinking she stared in disbelief at the clock timer: Three minutes, twenty-seven seconds.

"Oh, Gods of the Forge." Even that utterance stole two seconds away.

Zefir's eyes were wide open in fear and pain, his body limp, but resisting unconsciousness. His dragon-shaped mouth formed a desperate plea: Valin...Valin help me.

Quickly, she thrust the goggles back over her eyes and was instantly transported back to Zefir's inner workings. The riptide pulled at her again, but her body threatened to do something so un-Inventrix as to tremble in fear. No! She wouldn't succumb to her base need, or her body's failing. Her hands steadied as she placed back together all of the pieces she'd gleefully taken apart, moving faster than even her enhanced body had during the Trial.

The Trial...

The boiling crucible heated the walkway until Seren knew what degree burns her feet endured, and Mirena was turning with that slender pipe in her hand...

"No!" she shrieked. "Not now!"

There. The last microcog clicked into place and she hurried to start his heart, his lungs.

Zefir inhaled a rattling, harsh metallic-sounding breath. Weakly, he tried to get his legs under him, and when he did, he scrambled away from her, his quicksilver eyes wide in fear and hurt.

Betrayal. She knew that look, had mapped its outlines on Kirwen's face during the Trial. No, don't think on the Trial!

"Zefir, my dear dragon," she breathed, reaching for him. "I'm sorry. I've never miscalculated the time before, I didn't—"

"Get away from me," the dragon managed to growl. But the sound was strained, painful, his sides heaving unevenly.

Tears stung her eyes. She had never wept as a child, had never known it was an option until Kirwen shared that function with her through their virul-connection. Even now, knowing it would pain her mirror, she reached with her mind for Kirwen—and there was the usual echoing sensation of her other's failing thoughts: The final battle draws near—[anger][triumph]

Kirwen! Bring Valin! It's Zefir…[fear][remorse]

Seren sensed the affirmation from her other like a supportive caress.

She held up her trembling hands toward Zefir, who cowered from her as if he weren't ten times her size. "Valin's coming, Zefir. Please forgive me, I...need to see if there's any permanent damage."

His brass hide was dull, too pale. Almost yellowy. He tried to shake his head, but his weakness caused only a mild flop of his pointed head. Those quicksilver eyes were bleak.

She wanted to retreat within herself and never return. But she couldn't, not if something else was wrong with him, her Zefir, her dearest heart. So instead, knowing she'd lost his trust forever, Seren sank to her knees, doubled over with the pain of it, and wept.

An Inventrix wasn't built to weep. She'd coached her body long ago to respond to her happiness and sorrow with saltwater, as her kind always had full mental dominion over every aspect of their body (except for one—normal reproduction was impossible). Salt tears had been a part of her life because of the sheer force of her will. But now, with her failing body—and mind—she blinked and her world turned red.

Seren wept blood tears.
#

Valin hunched over the metal device he was building, sitting on his cot in their prison, making sure that the three separate chambers could collapse as the timing mechanism wound down. Upon collapse the three liquids would combine and an explosion would result; he would have to calculate the amounts very carefully or the squad would go up rather than just the hanger door.

He still needed the chemicals. He still needed more parts too, but Ferrei had grown deft at swiping things from the line with only an innocuous gesture from Valin to indicate the piece he needed.

Jarre leaned his shoulder on the metallic doorframe, listening for any sign of guards coming for them, his thick arms crossed over his chest.

Nyru lay listlessly on her own cot, her eyes blank as she stared at the ceiling.

Valin was beginning to worry about his First. All of the casual power she exuded was leeched out of her. With nothing to occupy her, not even their endless discussions on how to escape, Valin could only assume that she had nothing but time to think on her lost bloodson. Even on the assembly lines, he could see her eyes watering, gaze distant.

Ferrei sat next to him, concentrating on which tools he was using. Occasionally, she would glance up at her First Leader, then meet her blood-cousin's worried frown, before watching Valin with a tenacious focus.

"I still only understand a quarter of what you're doing," she said, tapping the timing mechanism. "This is pointless."

"No," Valin insisted. "If something happens to me, I need you to be able to finish this. It's our best means of escape. And you, Second, are my best techie."

Jarre chuckled.

"Quiet you," Ferrei shot back with a hint of a tight-lipped smile.

Valin released the timing mechanism from the chamber holders for the third time and passed the device to her, watching her reassemble it in the correct order.

"Again," And when she'd successfully reassembled it three times, he said, "Again."

She shot him a wry glance. "You sound like my Training Master. I swear 'again' was the only word he ever said. Except for 'poor form' and 'do that and you'll fall from the sky.'"

Valin watched her reassemble it quicker, almost effortlessly. He wasn't sure what to say. His Second had never revealed anything of her personal life. "All Training Masters must be the same then, because Jarre said those exact same words to me the first time Zefir and I flew maneuvers in his wing."

Ferrei chuckled. "Sounds like a true Quarethstra. Many of my line are Trainers." She held the device out for him to take.

"Again," he said, grinning. "This time I want you to completely disassemble every piece, and then when you're done, put it back together. Then I'll show you where the missing pieces will go, and how you should assemble them once we obtain them."

"You're a harsh Training Master, Seven," she said wryly, half-smiling.

Then she set to her task with that same studious intensity he'd come to expect from the Second Leader. Intimidating yes, but when not aimed at him he found he rather enjoyed her quiet company. Still, he found his mind wandering to several things—to the Lyth family and the uncomfortable notion that these Wheelteeth were in fact of his blood, to what Leader Kirwen was doing with Zefir and if the dragon faired well, to the persistent idea that this plan for escape would fail—

"Chewing the clouds?" While Ferrei struggled with the connector between chambers, she added, "Thinking about your discussion with that old poorblood Director?"

So, while more amiable outwardly she still was suspicious of him. What would she say if she knew that "old poorblood" was, in a way, his own bloodline? "No...just thinking."

"What'd that wrinkled old fool ask you anyway?"

He hated lying, but he couldn't tell her the truth. He doubted she'd believe such a tale, and if she did, it would be confirmed in her eyes that Valin was her enemy. In fact, he doubted any of the squad would trust him if he revealed such a thing.

"She asked why I was jumping the line so much," he answered. "Back home, jumping the line more than once would bring shame, and my own blood would've chastised me harshly. Here it seems they're more tolerant, being that their techs are taught from all...families." At Ferrei's wrinkled nose, he kept on, "But even so, she was suspicious I was intentionally disruptive."

All true. But even omission could be cloaked as a simple form of lie.

Ferrei nodded, her hands still working at the device. "You did your best. Being sly isn't in any of our blood."

Interesting assertion after she'd accused him of being a traitor.

"And yet," he gestured to the device in her hand, "we're all capable of doing things we were never bred for."

He expected a snide retort at that, but she averted her gaze, her fingers halting their work on the firebomb. "So it seems. But you must remember, Seven, that such ideas are dangerous. Once we get back home, you'll not see me jumping into any of the tech caverns any time soon. I was born to be a Navigator. It's my purpose. By the Sun, it's who I am. The enemy's way is chaos, and they are weak and feeble because of it. They know nothing of the joy of blood purpose."

Valin's lips firmed into a thin line. "So, I should be happy then to return to techwork once we arrive home?"

He feared he knew what her answer would be before she spoke. It made his blood rage with fire; he could feel his cheeks heating in anger.

Ferrei still wouldn't meet his eye. "The purpose of your blood is who you are—"

"Can you even conceive of the fact that I was unhappy as a second-level tech?" Valin couldn't keep this voice even. Because that's what they wanted to hear. A placated sootfoot who would meekly go back to his forges when dismissed. "Every night as a child I dreamed that I was flying. I could feel the wind on my cheeks, hear the roar of the ornithopter. I yearned for it with every sun-be-damned part of my being. As a child I'd watch the launches and my mind was gone with them." He swiped his hand in the air, not using a Nav gesture but simply encompassing all three in a curt sweep. "But I could never have that. I was told by my own line, by everyone I questioned. Those dreams could never be real."

Ferrei looked up at him in surprise.

Valin's anger rose like molten fire within and he clenched his teeth, desperately trying not to raise his voice. "Not all find joy in their predefined purpose, Second Leader. And now that these dreams are real, nothing, not you, not the enemy, not the Forge n' Fire Inventrix herself could keep me from flying with Zefir."

Even Jarre was watching Valin in surprise.

Silence reigned. And he hated it. Their silence, their judgment.

"The dreams," came the voice of his First.

He wasn't certain he could meet her gaze, not without his anger cresting to new heights, but Nyru still stared at the ceiling. Achingly slow, Nyru rose to her feet, her eyes bloodshot.

"Come," she said, gesturing.

Ferrei hid the firebomb beneath her cot and moved to stand before the First Leader. Jarre moved from his sentinel's place by the door and came to stand distant from his blood-cousin.

"Come, Valin," said Nyru, voice stronger than he'd heard in days. "Stand with your squad."

"Is that what we truly are?"

He regretted his angry, bitter words the instant he released them.

Nyru's gaze remained steady. "Squad is family. Squad is beyond blood. We are a squadron whether you like it or not, Navigator."

Navigator. Not Valin, or Seven. But Navigator.

A squad is beyond blood.

He strode for them and settled himself in between Ferrei and Jarre, proudly staring his First Leader in the eye.

"What you couldn't know," began Nyru solemnly, "is that we believe joyful night-dreams of flight are given to us as a blessing—sunwing dreams, we call them. Some believe them a gift of a bloodline forebear. Others believe they're a message from a lost loved one who inhabits the sundisk. But the majority of Navigators believe that these dreams are the purest truth that resides within us. One unquestioned. That we were destined to fly."

Valin waited respectfully, seeing Jarre and Ferrei bow their heads as if reciting something internally.

"You've been gifted with sunwing dreams, Navigator." Nyru lifted her chin, her eyes bright and sure despite the sorrow lurking behind them. "You were destined to fly. And unlike any of us who've been born to it, you had to fight to gain your own purest truth. Our squad would do well to remember that."

He firmed his stance. "Respectfully, First Leader, I wasn't destined. I chose this."
Jarre lifted a surprised brow, and Ferrei regarded him with that familiar intensity. Not suspicion. Not this time. She watched him like she studied the firebomb, trying to figure out how it worked. Or why.

"I chose," he said, "to break into the Inventrix's lab, knowing that I would be irrevocably shamed, or exiled. But it didn't matter. Even if my first flight was my last, then so be it. I'm only lucky that my first flight was with Zefir."

Jarre grinned and slung an arm around Valin's shoulders, shaking him with those massive arms. His Third made gestures for first flight-freedom, last flight return-to-the-sun. "First flight, last flight, squad brother."

Another oath. Together to the end. Awkwardly, Valin accepted the big Third's friendly thwap on the back.

"First flight, last flight," Ferrei repeated, a guarded look in her eye.

Nyru flickered her fingers at them. "Back to your work then, squad."

Jarre made his way back to the door, leaning against it casually. Dutifully, Ferrei fetched the firebomb device from beneath her cot, sat back down with Valin at her side, and began to disassemble it from beneath Valin's scrutiny.

Quietly, his Second said, "I've never had a sunwing dream."

Valin didn't know what to do with her admission. And though he only surmised that such a confession revealed blood-shame, by the bleak look in her gaze, he wondered if it wasn't more personal.

"I used to pray for them as a child. But they never came no matter how hard I wished. I even lied to my Elders, and told them the dream blessings had come. For years, I've wondered if their absence has meant that there's some inherent deficiency inside of me." She looked up at him, a mixture of shame and resentment in her eye. "That you, someone not of the blood, has been gifted nightly with those dreams..."

She lapsed into silence.

Valin wasn't certain that she wouldn't spew some hateful curse, and he carefully guarded his words. "Why are you telling me this, Second?"

She firmed her lips. "I've never had to try hard at anything. With my bloodline, everything has been easily given to me. I've taken my flights for granted, and have even complained about them. Yet I've never heard you complain about long training hours, difficult maneuvers, or how some of the Second wing...bullied you. Not even after battle. No, you take every flight with wonder, as if it's both your first and your last flight."

He shifted uncomfortably and tried to take the firebomb from her hands, but she clutched it tighter.

"You must see," she said desperately, "why I can't help but resent you for it."

Valin rose to his feet and crossed his arms. He was surprised to find that he wasn't angry, only tired. And a little saddened. "I think we're through here for the day."

"Wait!" She still clutched the device close to her, as if she were cradling something precious. "Valin...I..." She swallowed. "I still believe our blood purpose makes our 
Clan who we are. But maybe...you're special."

And that made Valin even sadder. That angry weight inside dissipated until he only felt a distant kind of pity for Ferrei, still desperately trying to fit him into her perfectly defined world. "I'm not, Second Leader. I'm just someone born a second-level techworker who had dreams of something different." Before she could say any more, he gestured to the device. "You've done it perfectly. Now, do it perfectly again three more times."

Before she could say another word, Jarre hissed and made the curt signal for enemy on the horizon. With a smooth motion, Ferrei tucked the firebomb in a divot in the stone they'd found and covered it with rubble.

The door cranked and began to open in its wider form; Valin's heartbeat increased in hope. And after the usual guards hurried inside, that familiar Wolf form entered the cavern in rapid strides.

"Seven, with me," she barked, gesturing for him. "It's your dragon. Hurry. He needs you."

Heart in his throat, he didn't hesitate to even consider if this was a ruse. He ran to her side, and as she turned to move in effortless strides down the corridor, he followed.

What was wrong with Zef?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #10: The Truth is Unkind


The gleaming brass dragon torso was already taking shape—it was growing. And Zefir couldn't help but keep sniffing at it, eager to remember the similar-yet-not-similar scent that mirrored-yet-didn't-mirror his own smell. Even as he watched Seren hunched over the form, microfyer goggles strapped over her eyes, she was muttering to herself, "Ach, no, no no. This way is better. Certainly."

The brass pseudo-flesh was knitting itself into a larger whole, still inching along and growing before his eyes; he watched in fascination as she began to piece together his sibling dragon's heart-mind.

Seren had beamed at him with those goggles intensifying her eyes, saying, "It's telling that your heart is also your mind, and your mind your heart. If only those were the same in humans, maybe we could learn something."

After listening in rapt concentration to his heart ticking in his chest, Seren kept muttering to herself. He worried as Seren's grumbles devolved into outbursts that frightened him.

"No!" she snarled. Throwing off her microfyer goggles, she pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes. "The variables! They're too beautiful, too achingly exquisite. Gods of the Forge, is this what you saw, Mirena? No wonder you're failing!"

"Seren," Zefir said gently. "Perhaps you need time to—"

"No!" she shrieked at him. "There's so little time!"

She sank to her knees and instead of drawing upon her schematics, she began to trace numbers, letters—symbols?—with her bare fingers on the stone floor. She scratched so hard at the ground that her fingertips were torn and bleeding.

"Seren!" he called, his voice buzzing with his fear.

"Listen to me, Kirwen," she said sharply, not looking at him. "Lissteri, trust me, please. If we do this together, we'll survive."

Was she trapped in her own memories, reciting her own words? It seemed so as she continued scratching at the ground frantically as if trying to claw her way out. "It should be we three together. That's how we were made, to be parts of a whole. Whatever this trial holds, we cannot abandon one another. That's what they want us to do."

Terrified now, Zefir wondered what he could do to break her from this memory. He reached for her and when he touched her, she screamed. Fighting against his gentle hands, she kicked, spat, and punched at him. He'd never seen her grow violent, his most gentle of friends. He didn't know what to do.

"Mirena, no! Join us! They can't kill us for failure if we survive together—" and a horrible wail of anguish came hoarsely from her throat.

What had Mother done to gentle her mirror?

Softly, Zefir began to sing the song that he recalled his Mother singing. Lilting and powerful as it thrummed its way from his chest and out through his throat, rendered in a baritone caress.

Seren blinked and her eyes filled with tears. She stopped struggling and went limp as a rag, so Zefir cradled her close. He continued singing, even though there were no words to his song, even when Seren continued to weep.

Slowly, he became aware of another presence. Standing in the doorway, maskless and quiet, Kirwen was watching them, a pained furrow to her brow.

Zefir stopped singing, gently rocking Seren in his arms. He watched Kirwen warily, silently pleading with the wolf leader not to tear them apart. He couldn't stop her if she wanted to rip Seren from his arms, not unless he was willing to strike the wolf leader. And his parole would be broken and the squad would die.

He was powerless.

"Please," Zefir croaked, everything cold inside. He felt no shame in begging, only the fear of losing her. "Please don't hurt her. Don't take her away from me. I beg of you."

Kirwen walked forward with a gliding motion. The pain on her face was unmistakable, and she trembled. "I would never hurt her."

Zefir shook his head. "You threatened her."

"No...I..." Those all too familiar eyes regarded him in earnest. "In a way...I did.  Because I threatened you with destruction. Because anymore that's the only thing her mind will focus on to allow her to stay in the present. Is you, child."

Seren was still weeping, but had buried her face in Zefir's chest.

Zefir wanted to close his eyes, to curl up with Seren in his arms and to sleep away the worry and hurt. That magically somehow she would be fine. But he wasn't a child any longer. That was a child's want. "What is wrong with her?"

The silence stretched so long that he was certain Kirwen wouldn't answer. Instead, she let out a weary sigh. "You must know, child," said Kirwen, the timbre of sorrow in her voice, "Seren is dying."

Zefir's throat felt dry, his thoughts whirling.

He wanted to breathe out a denial, wanted to believe that this wolf woman—this self professed enemy—was lying. But he couldn't hear a stutter of the valves of her mechanical heart, nor a held breath, or even a flicker of the eye that would signal a lie. The shock of it made him cold, and everything inside ached in pain; his legs seemed like they wouldn't support him, so he sat on his haunches, still holding Seren pressed to him.

His eyes stung, feeling hot. He could barely find the breath to ask, "Why is this happening to her? Like this?"

Kirwen regarded him without sign that she was moved at all by his obvious pain. But he could hear her holding her breath, see her lips pressed together tightly. Almost like Mother.

"Can...can I help her?" Zefir asked. "There must be a way."

Silence fell once again, and Zefir heard Seren's weak voice, "Tell him, lissteri. He deserves to know. Please tell him...for me."  

Zefir looked down and watched as Seren wiped at her bloodshot eyes, and moved as if the world itself were weighing her down. He still wouldn't release her, and she didn't seem inclined to move from the confines of his arms.

Kirwen remained fixated on Seren for an interminable span of time, Zefir resisting the urge to prompt her, before she placed a brass hand up to halt her mirror's pleading.

Zefir remained very still, listening to the cadence of Seren's human heart.

"Are you certain you wish to know, child?" said Kirwen at last. "The truth is unkind."

"I—I do."

"Then so be it." Her sour smile twisted into a bitter grimace. "Let us say what mirrors truly are—exact physical copies vat-grown from the blood of the First Inventrix of our Clan—and yes, I was once of your Clan." She heard Zefir's dubious grunt, but ignored it. "But that matters not. What does is that we mirrors have a set period of time to live. It's the way our flesh is constructed. Barring a violent death, it's two hundred and ten years. Near our end date, we begin to fail. Like pieces breaking apart before we shatter. The first to crumble is the mind."

Zefir clenched his jaw, wishing he didn't believe her words. "So her memory locks..."

"Have always happened. One of her unique defects altered by our predecessor, who meddled criminally in the design of our blood." Kirwen sighed. "But Seren's memory locks have never been so...debilitating. It signals that the end is near. She doesn't have long. And there's nothing that can stop it."

"How long?" Zefir managed, holding himself against the stinging in his eye.

"Were we normal mirrors, we would know to the minute. As none of us were created within normal parameters, I'm uncertain." 

Zefir's mind connected what she was truly saying: Seren was dying. Mother was dying. And Kirwen the Wolf was too.

The pressure built within him and he released a low, mournful sound.

"If she has so little time left," said Zefir, steadying his voice, "then why are you forcing her to do this?" He pointed with his snout to the growing dragon form on the tabletop. "Do you hate her so much?"

"I'm not forcing the act of creation on her." Kirwen regarded the growing brass flesh upon the table and she moved to study it, touching it in surprised wonder with a disbelieving shake of her head. "Completely denying her the Inventrix instinct, her obsession to build, would only harm her more." She flicked her gaze up to meet with his. "And no, I've never hated Seren. The mere idea is inconceivable. She is mirror-kin. She's...lissteri. A bond stronger than blood-sisterhood. You can't even begin to understand."

Zefir lowered his face closer to hers, studying her intently. "Mother...Mirena is your mirror-kin too. Why do you bear such hate for—?"

Kirwen's fist came down hard upon the table top, and Zefir flinched. Her breathing increased, hissing through her clenched teeth. The growing brass flesh of the dragon-sibling seemed to tremble near her hand.

"Ask me that again, child," she said deceptively quiet yet her voice quivering with anger, "and you'll see just what the extent of my wrath looks like."

Seren stirred, but Zefir was reluctant to set her down. "Kirwen—"

The wolf leader growled out an animalistic sound and spun around, heading for the door. Before Zefir could decide to clamp down on his thoughts, the words slipped from his mouth, "You hate me too."

It wasn't an accusation. Merely uttering the bare truth.

Kirwen halted in her tracks, brass hands clenched. Her voice was taught, like a string ready to snap. "I don't hate you, child."

Zefir gently settled Seren in the chair near the lab table, and the woman smiled mildly up at him. He walked around the wolf leader, and she allowed him to step in front of her, blocking her path. "You do. Because I call her Mother. Because she made me. Because she's your enemy, and so am I."

"I don't hate you," she repeated. "No, I hate that she dared to make the one thing I've yearned for my whole life. That which she stole from me."

Zefir didn't understand, but before he could ask she skirted around his bulk, her movements sure but hurried, and was gone.

He turned to Seren when she began to absent-mindedly hum to herself, that same song that Zefir had sung to her. Shaking himself of the aching feeling inside, disturbed by the wolf leader's obvious pain and anger, he approached his dying friend and nudged her oh-so gently with his nose.

She began to sing:

Hush child, we are here
Three against the world
Hush child, don't you fret
Three to protect your dreams
Cry and One will know
Hurt and Two will soothe
Fall and Three will catch you

"Two will sing you to sleep," she said tiredly, stroking his cheek. "Sleep now."

And she sang until she grew hoarse, repeating the same words over and over. It wasn't until Zefir curled up at her feet and feigned sleep that she stopped.

#

For the fourth time, Valin jumped his spot in the assembly line and dashed down to his squad to correct them. He was trying hard not to be frustrated by their mistakes; they made errors that a techworker child would've laughed at. Wryly, he realized that this was the very same response his own squad had when Valin made errors in the air that even a Navigator not yet old enough to fly would've never made.

He moved around Nyru, who kept grunting in frustration as she affixed the pieces on the line, and had let far too many pieces go by her.

He slapped down the pieces in his hand next to Jarre. The eternal rotation of the assembly line made its accustomed whirring sound, the din echoing through the massive workspace filled with its techsuited workers. Automatically, Valin raised his voice just enough to be heard over the whomp-whomp-whomp-hiss of the line's movement.

"These are the size three pieces." And he pointed again, making sure the other Wheelteeth second-level techies saw his admonishment. "This line requires size two pieces from the box on your left." Then he said lower, so no one else could hear, "If you can't keep up at a basic pace..."

Then they couldn't hide their true motives in being the forge caves.

Already, Valin's absence would be noted by the man standing further up the line, and if this continued, the Director would mince words with him. If they drew too much notice, then Valin and his squad wouldn't be able to steal the necessary parts for building a modified firebomb, something of his own experimental imagination.

"No problem, O First Leader of our Techie Wing," Jarre drawled nonchalantly, and surreptitiously palmed the pieces, placing them in his pocket in a deft movement.

"Keep up, blood-cousin," Ferrei crowed, her hands moving like she'd been born to such work. "Don't let techwork best you, or you'll never live it down."

Ferrei's quickness had impressed Valin enough to where he couldn't help but praise her. She'd scowled at him, and then swallowed whatever derisive reply she'd been about to utter. Instead she'd said, "It's a lot harder than I'd guessed. And oddly soothing, this work. It's like gliding...you kind of forget what you're doing and you're just in the moment."

He didn't point out that where they were in the line was usually reserved for the techworker youths entering the forge caves for the first time.

Had they been at home, back among the Cog Clan, the Director would've moved Ferrei to the quality checkpoints where Valin was even now supposed to be.

He turned to dash back to his spot in line, the heat of the forge caves pressing against his cooling-insulated techsuit in the exact way he remembered. Before he found his spot again, noting the glare of the man forced to pick up Valin's slack, a stern voice called from behind him, "A word with you, if you please."

 Valin turned to see Director Lyth eyeing him as if he weren't almost twice her small, hunched height. The Elder of the Lyth, eyes flashing, motioned him away from the din of the assembly line. Closer to the unmoving final prep tables—which at home was the domain of first-level techs only—the heat abated and the noise died down, but he could see the end result of their work: new ketch-gryphons being placed together, ready for battle.

Without preamble, Elder Lyth said, "In my cave, no one, and I mean absolutely no one jumps the line this much. Not even for correction."

Being admonished by a Director would've once filled him with a base kind of shame and dread. Even now embarrassment wormed its way through him before he batted it aside. "Apologies, Director. Back home I'm not on the lines, but in the chemical caves."

The lie almost stuck in his throat. He needed just one day—no, one hour among the chemical vats, the glassware and funnels, siphoning off the solvents...

Only the concoction he'd take away in separate vials would be...dangerous. And explosive once mixed.

"Ha," the Elder barked. "I'd rather put you in the kitchens. Then at least one of you Cog Clan scum could learn to make a decent flatbread."

Valin didn't want to admit he liked Elder Lyth, because she reminded him of all his own bloodline's Elders. "Your flatbread tastes just like my bloodline Seven's. Reminded me of home. Extra spiceberry and all."

Her mouth opened in surprise for a moment, before she closed it in a hesitant frown. She gestured him down to her level with a curt motion, and Valin immediately acquiesced—though he realized belatedly he shouldn't have given an enemy such respect—and knelt until she grasped at either side of his face; she studied his features intently, peering into his eyes, poking at his cheeks. Uncertain what she was doing, he remained still, muscles rigid.

"Double spiceberry," she muttered, "two pinches of fenu seed to give it that sour flavor, and three pinches of cinna powder?"

The secret to the Seven line's flatbread. All of the blood knew it and the proportions by heart.  

"Y-Yes," he blurted. How would a Wheelteeth know it?

Her gaze narrowed, still studying him so fixedly that he had to fight not to squirm. After a long silence, the Elder scowled at him and waved him back to his feet. "Back to the line with you, Seven. You're slowing up my production. You and those other Cog scum. If Kirwen would let me, I'd toss you all in the deepest, darkest pit we have."

And the look she gave him was so full of anger, that he stiffened his spine. "Kirwen?"

"Our leader, idiot boy."

Ah, he had a name for the Wolf at last. "I wasn't aware of her name. Your Inventrix Kirwen neglected to introduce herself properly."

"She's no Inventrix." Elder Lyth curled her lips up in disgust. "We've not had an Inventrix for over three hundred years. And a what a boon it's been to let our mirrors die out, let their vat-kept blood dry and turn to dust, to destroy our Clan's rebirth machines once and for all." Her voice rose, eyes narrowed in bare hatred. "We don't need an Inventrix telling us how to live and die, how to breed and work. They're made not to care overmuch about anything other than order, building, and having their underlings obey their grand scheme. So why, Seven, would we allow such a heartless creature to be our overlord?"  

She made his way of life sound so...pointless. As if he were no more than a thrall, destined only to obey the order of things that had been set forth since the First Inventrix of the Cog Clan. Her words made his hands curl into fists, as if he could strike such scathing ideas about his people. He wanted to argue that she spoke falsely...but something inside him rebelled, knowing there were truths uttered among Elder Lyth's hate.

"We don't allow it. It simply is." Even as Valin said it, he wanted to cringe at how empty and weak that statement. "And our Inventrix isn't heartless—"

Her harsh bark of a laugh interrupted him. "A heartless wretch, your Inventrix. She wages a never-ending war upon us. Your people are destroying us, killing my family, my people. And you probably don't even know why."

"Your Clan attacked first," he said, remembering that he'd said the same thing to Leader Kirwen. And how she'd scoffed at the rote regurgitation of his history lessons.

Elder Lyth's wrinkled face screwed up in fury. "We had no choice!"

Valin fought to tamp down on his own rising anger, remembering the Wolf's response: What is it that you think she did with our children?

He hissed in a breath, his techworker mind forming connections, yearning to put the pieces together in the proper order. "The children...your children..."

"I'll not have you gloat," she snarled. Gesturing to the line, and thrusting a finger into his chest, she growled, "Back to your place, and any more jumping the line and I swear to the Forge Gods that I'll take all of you Cog scum and throw you from the highest ledge."

He wouldn't accede, wouldn't bow to another's will. Not now. Planting his stance firmly, interlacing his fingers in front of him respectfully, Valin stated, "Our Inventrix isn't heartless. Your children, the ones from long ago—"

"She murdered them when she took them." Elder Lyth lifted her chin, glaring into his eyes.

"No, she didn't. Your children didn't come to harm." He still wasn't certain of his Inventrix's motives, but he was certain he had the truth of it. "Your children became us. They were taken into the Clan. They became new bloodlines, new—" the Wheelteeth woman didn't want to hear of bred bloodlines, so he used the more neutral, "families."

The hesitation marked its way across her face, but she shook her head. "No."

That's why she had been studying him, he was sure of  it. Looking for some lost familial feature? "How else would I know the secret to the Lyth family flatbread?"

Elder Lyth turned to the side, and made a gesture he didn't recognize. Neither a Navigator sign, or a techie command. It didn't seem vulgar. But after a moment two men detached themselves from their work on the ketch-gryphons and came to her side, promising violence with their gazes.

"Take Seven Valin here, and make certain he stays in line."

One of the men touched her shoulder. "Did he threaten you grandmere?"

"No." And she gave Valin another appraising look, hesitant. "But keep an eye on him anyway."

Valin was escorted back to his place in the assembly line, his head full of his new revelations on the past.  
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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #9: The Wolf


Zefir allowed himself to peer around at the vast carved caverns of the Wheelteeth stronghold, but did his best to appear unimpressed as he paced slowly by the wolf leader's side. How easily he fit in the hallways, how grand and beautiful everything was, how...unorganized. He spotted the flight decks and the Navigators polishing their cobbled together gryphon flyers, techies assisting them in repairs. Younglings darted to and fro, none of them wearing clothing that would proclaim their bloodline purpose. Skipping to their lessons, they paused to stare at his large, brass form in awe and squealed in surprise as Zefir stuck his large tongue out at them.

As Zefir continued further underground he detected the smell of oil, that sharp metallic tang, and a burning, molten scent.

He must be close to the forges.

Though the light from above had dimmed in the deep heart of the mountain, lighted by a series of gas-lamps buried in the wall, a different manner of lighting made the forge caverns glow with orange-red heat. Valin had said the techworker assembly lines were uncomfortably warm, and the forge excruciatingly hot. Following the wolf woman into the forges, he could see the great crucibles bubbling, could hear the ting-ting-ting of hammers on anvils wielded by men and woman larger than Jarre, could hear the shouted directives of higher-level...someones.

Zefir's brass hide felt very warm and he panted away some of the excess heat, until they passed from the forges and into a cooler room. The madness of this cavern reminded him of Mother's laboratory—only larger. Much, much larger!

There was a figure hunched over one of the long tables, staring at a sketched schematic.

"Seren!" Zefir cried, his voice echoing through the din of the ever rotating lines.

She raised her arms out to her side, grinning. "Oh, my dear dragon!"

She ran toward him, her loose fitting techie worksuit flapping about her. Before he could react, she leapt toward him; he caught her almost belatedly in his arms, forcing him to sit on his haunches, nearly crushing a toolcart beneath him. Seren pushed her ear over his chest and embraced him with her tiny arms.

"Oh, the sound. Listen to it, oh, how it's changed." She peered up at him, and patted his snout. "Look at how you've grown!"

"I'm the same size," he said, ignoring the silent presence of the wolf woman.

"Out here," she said, tapping his brass hide with her knuckles. "But not in here." A tap upon his chest. Again, she pressed her ear against him, mouth screwing up in concentration. That same kind of rapt attention that even Mother had, where it seemed the world disappeared for them.

The wolf woman stepped toward her. "Seren. Arth il donai, meranc."

 That strange language that Seren and Mother spoke...so the wolf leader knew it too?

"Yes, yes, Kirwen," the mirror woman said, reluctantly wriggling from Zefir's gentle grip. Once situated again on the ground, Seren's focus shifted. Her feverishly bright gaze fixated unerringly on the leader. "The alignment of the pseudo-metallic vertebrae in your neck is slightly...off. It needs adjustment."

Zefir chuffed at the air again, wondering...that scent that the wolf leader bore...

"I've done well enough adjusting things myself when you decided to flee."

A sigh. "I didn't flee...I left. Because of the failing. I feel it happening, and it's affecting you. Even though my virul-microcog bond isn't as strong with you as with—"

"You left to find Mirena and her last invention, not for my benefit." The taught anger was simmering in her voice, but it seemed even this wolf leader—no, this Kirwen—wouldn't raise her voice in fury to Seren.

"We three are connected," Seren said mildly, her eye still riveted to Kirwen. "We all knew I'd be the first to fail. I had to know how far she'd descended, so I'd know how long you have. And it seems, perhaps with your anger calling upon you more and more, perhaps not as long as you hope. In the end, your fury will destroy you."

Kirwen was shaking, as if she wished to belie that statement, but couldn't. Zefir inhaled her scent again, and knew; he could taste the tang of her metal-fury, like warmed copper.

"Part of you is like me," he stated.

The wolf woman reached up to her flight mask and with a violent motion, tore it from her face. Beneath the mask she appeared just like Mother—but not quite like Seren whose expression marked her as same-but-different—but Kirwen's cold, craggy face made Zefir uncomfortable to see the enemy rendered so similar to Mother; her eyes flashed in rage, her mouth curling up with a violence he'd never seen from Mother, making her look cruel rather than cool and distant. But while her face was human flesh, the back of her skull and her neck was made of pseudo-metallic brass flesh, a match for his own. She tore off her gloves revealing hands cast in brass, the elegant micro-cog work of her joints glinting in the low light.

"Like you," she growled, ripping off her scarf and flight jacket, revealing her upper arms made like Zefir's own, only human-sized. "Do you know what your creator did to me during the trial? The testing? Do you have any concept of how she destroyed me? Look at what she did to me!"

The burning copper smell invaded his sensitive brass nostrils, and he exhaled the stink of her rage.

"Mother wouldn't...she can't have..." Zefir struggled, feeling very out of his depth. What would Valin say in a situation such as this? "Is that why you hate her so?"

"One of many reasons," said Kirwen, holding her flight mask so tightly that her knuckles turned a different shade. "And now you call such a wretch mother. How I should be laughing at that. Our heartless, logical, perfect Inventrix. The one chosen through trial. And now look at how she fails, creating a child—a child!—not a weapon to end it all." Her mouth curled up in a frightening manner that made Zefir step back nervously into the toolcart. "I should be so glad to see her failure so obvious. And yet, that joy isn't there. I'm robbed even of that."

Seren placed a gentle hand on her mirror's shoulder, but Kirwen shrugged it off.

"I don't understand," Zefir said. "Whatever is between you and Moth—between Mirena, it doesn't mean that we need to be enemies. Is that why you attack us?"

Kirwen's eyes gained that lost in focus look he recognized from Seren's memory locks. "She made an enemy of me, child." Shaking her head, she focused on Zefir once more before turning to Seren. "Make more of him, but don't make them think like him."

Seren laughed her easy, lilting laugh. Zefir always thought it like the warm summer breeze. "His mind is the unique part of him. It's what drives everything else. My silly mirror, you can't create one without—"

"Do it, lissteri. Or I'll deny you that Inventrix obsession to make more of him." Kirwen glanced up at Zefir and said with infinite calm, "Test me in this and I'll destroy him, Seren."

Zefir's chest felt tight. He no longer knew what to say, and his hope that he could reason with the wolf leader fled. His own anger flared to be dismissed, to be threatened. "Make an attempt to destroy me, Leader Kirwen, and you'll see just what I'm made of."

She raised a skeptical brow. "And what is that, child?"

Zefir lowered his face toward hers, on level so he could look into her eyes. "The same material as you. Parts made by the same Inventrix. Isn't it so?"

Kirwen placed her flight mask back over her face, obscuring her familiar-yet-not-familiar features once more. "You have the right of it, dragon. But you must ask yourself, child, why she would cause the destruction of my body only to give me a new one."

Seren shook her head sadly. "You know why, lissteri."

"She hasn't that defect. Not like you. Not like me. We care. She wasn't bred with it. That's why she won the trial."

Zefir opened his mouth to ask about this "trial" to which she kept referring, when the wolf leader spun on heel and began stalking out of the techworker cavern. From over her shoulder she barked, "Heed me, Seren. Make me warrior creatures as dangerous as this one, but not with sentience. And then, I'll bring them down upon her head and find victory at last."

"You won't," Seren whispered, unheard by her mirror.

And the wolf leader was gone.

 Zefir watched Seren's crestfallen expression, and she placed a hand to her forehead, muttering, "She had to mention the trial. More than once." She began to mutter to herself so low even Zefir couldn't hear, shaking her head with a violence that concerned him until he carefully folded a wing about her, lest she somehow injure herself during one of her memory locks. "No, no, I won't let those memories take me, not today."

"Seren?" he whispered, worried. "Please, just whatever Kirwen said to you to make you remember something bad, just focus on me. Listen to my voice. Can you hear me?"

The muttering stopped and her expression lightened as she touched his cooling-wire veins as she had the first time they met. "I hear you, dear heart. Just...keep talking, will you?" 

Zefir spoke to her about the joys of his first flight with Valin, not certain how long he needed to speak in order to help her. As he spoke about his worries for the squad, she seemed much more herself. In the present.

"Zefir, my darling." Seren shook her head as if to clear it. "I won't let Kirwen harm you."

Zefir was certain the mirror woman couldn't possibly fight Kirwen, either physically or in a game of wills, but he nodded solemnly anyway.

"And if I'm to give you siblings, I can't stop—" and some of her usual absent-minded joy returned, "—from giving them their own remarkable personalities."

If he helped Seren, then maybe she wouldn't come to harm. Whatever hold her mirror Kirwen had over her, maybe Zefir could help. "Then how do we start?"

"We already have," said Seren.

And with that she turned to her work.


#

Valin was still staring at the door panel, desperately trying to remember the sequence of levers the guard had touched to open it wide for Zefir.

He glanced over at the cots and noticed that both Nyru and Ferrei were dozing despite the afternoon sun spearing down on them from the hangar doors above.

Being imprisoned had warped his squadron. It made Ferrei into a nervous caged animal ready to strike, sleepless and obsessed with vigilance; Nyru became like a somnolent feline causally looking for openings in the situation but finding none; Jarre continued to make jokes, but even his easy smile was faded and worn.

Two entrances, no exits. The door that lead deeper into the mountain, and the flight hanger doors above, which led to the outside world. Calculations spread through his mind, statistics on the most logical order of—

"If your stare could melt it open," said Jarre from behind him, "then sun-and-stars, it would."

Valin reluctantly pulled his mind from the puzzle, but he was still deep within his techworker mindset and absently said, "No, the sun-and-stars type of gear set-up is...Oh. Right."

Jarre had meant "sun-and-stars" as a mild curse, not as the techies called a specific type of gear rotation. Sometimes moments like this would remind him that he was no Navigator. Even his thoughts were ordered different, the hallmarks of his bloodline.

Though if the Wheelteeth proved anything, it was that being born without a bloodline purpose hampered them not at all. And the chaos of not knowing one's purpose...it made an odd thrill seep through him, even as he knew he was supposed to be repulsed by the idea. That it went against all he knew. Bloodline purpose kept the Clan working at optimal performance, kept it strong, healthy; it cast no doubts as to when to rise and when to eat, how and where to work, what your very being was designed for...

And yet even as a child I dreamed of flying, Valin thought. Stealing a flight mask from one of the assembly lines. Flapping my arms like a thopter, making bomber dragon noises.

Only for one of the many techworker grandmeres to sternly tell him that flying would never be a part of his life.

How wrong that was. He'd found his purpose.

Jarre gestured at the door and made an amused harrumph. "You're thinking about this all wrong."

"How so, Third?" Valin asked.

Jarre poked a large finger at Valin's forehead; the jab wasn't gentle, and Valin rubbed at the spot where that finger had struck. "You're thinking of the problem like a techie. But you need to think like a Nav."

"I fail to see what's wrong with trying to figure out the sequence—"

"There's your problem," Jarre said, grinning. "We need to find a way to destroy this thing. Not code it open."

"If we destroy the panel, the door will automatically lock until the wolf leader decides to pry it open." Valin made the gesture for end of flight, though he knew he didn't move his fingers in the effortless way the others did. "And this time she might let us starve in here. She has what she wants."

Jarre nodded, lips pursed. "Maybe she does. But you shouldn't worry too much about that flyer of yours. He's more clever than you give him credit for."

"Clever, yes," Valin said, frowning. "But also naïve and trusting."

"Those are qualities of the young and untried," said Jarre. "I've known many young Navs who've surprised me with their ferocity and cunning despite their naïve and trusting ways." That massive finger poked at Valin's forehead again. "Like this techie I took into my wing."

Take into a wing was a common enough phrase that meant many things to a Nav. It meant both that Valin and Zefir had become a part of the Third Wing of the squad, and that they required the paternal guidance of someone older and more experienced.

Valin didn't really think himself naïve, but perhaps from the standpoint of the Navigators he really was no more than a babe. Of all of the Navs in the squadron, Jarre had been the most accepting and amiable, but during battle practice, Jarre had become a stern taskmaster, a roaring lion of a man seeking to cut out any sign of weakness. And both Valin and Zefir had plenty of weaknesses, simply from ignorance and a lack of practice. Both of which were eliminated in a Nav's early life as a child bred to...

Perhaps it wasn't the blood, but simply their early education. Would Valin have been more capable if he had been raised to Navigator duty from the time when he was stealing flight masks and flapping his arms? Or would his focused instruction have only hindered his bond with Zefir, thinking of him as no more than a tool, a flyer?

Jarre moved to strike with that pointer finger again, and Valin took a step back, lifting his hands in the victory to you sign.

"See?" Jarre continued with his broad, infectious grin, holding up his finger. "Not so naïve."

The door made a quiet tick and both of the men stiffened. Ferrei blinked her bloodshot eyes, hopping quickly to her feet but stumbling in her exhaustion. Nyru slowly came awake, staring at the ceiling until she roused herself with an uncaring grunt.

The same guards entered first, carrying long-range flechette aerorifles rather than simple pistols.

Ferrei came to stand next to him, muttering, "That bodes well."

"I rather preferred the pistols," said Valin wryly. "But if they're going for intimidation by size, then they could've at least threatened us with a cannon."

The Second flashed him a brief hint of a bare smile. "Surely we're worth at least a few ceramic firebombs."

Jarre patted his blood-cousin roughly on the back. "At least ten of 'em. Two for our First, two for you, two for our Valin, and five for me of course."

"Five? Don't you mean four of ten?" Nyru asked, her scarred lips curled. "Someone can't count. It'd probably take all ten firebombs to get through that thick skull of yours."

This was the squad he knew, and Valin felt a stirring of pride lifting the heaviness in his chest.

Firebombs...if only he had a couple he could destroy, not the panel, but the door itself...

The wolf leader—who Valin had begun to think of simply as the Wolf—entered with her usual wolf flight mask in place, hands gloved, scarf in place.

"You, Seven. To the techwork forge caves with you." And she spread her hands at the other three, addressing her guards. "Put them to work polishing the gryphs."

"Work?" Valin asked, lifting a skeptical brow.

The Wolf shrugged, but something in her posture made Valin believe she was tense as a predator looking for prey. "At least this way you can be put to good use."

Ferrei stepped forward, looking just as predatory, her eyes narrowing. She pursed her lips and then made a rude sign, spitting on the ground. "The only way I'll be useful to the sun-be-damned Wheelteeth is when you kill me, because I won't—"

Jarre placed his meaty hand on her shoulder and squeezed until Ferrei inhaled, face pinched from the pain of his grip.

Nyru strode forward and the guards shifted their grips on their rifles. Holding up her hands in an unthreatening gesture, she said, "We will do as you ask. We won't threaten you or yours while we work, as our oath given for our parole."

Ferrei scowled at that.

One of the guards moved forward for Valin, and Ferrei stepped in his path. "We won't be separated. He's of our squad. A Nav, not a techie. He'll come with us."

Valin was surprised by his Second not only defending him, but finally claiming him as one of her own. Did that mean she trusted him? Or did she still think him capable of treachery and wanted him close?

The Wolf stood in silence, and she clasped her hands behind her back. Again, the posture was meant to convey a casual indifference, but her subtle trembling belied that. "You would do well not to test me today. Seven is more use to me in the forge caves."

Nyru shook her head. "We'll not be parted. Valin is ours. And we'll not let you disappear him the way you did our dragon."

The sense of pride and belonging only swelled further, and Valin knew he would do anything for these people. Even lay down his life for them. Even...offer the Wolf something far more valuable in order that they might be released? If his honor, even their acceptance of him had to be left in tatters so that they might survive, then so be it.

"Put them in the forge caves with me," Valin said.

The Wolf began to laugh, the sound buzzing oddly from behind the mask. As her laughter swelled into breathless cackles, Valin could hear that the sound of her laughter had a touch of madness about it that disturbed him.

A coldly logical enemy he could combat, but one who's mind was unhinged...they were doomed.

"Oh!" the Wolf laughed. "Oh, to see a Cog Clan Nav in the forge caves, oh, to see them struggle. They weren't bred for that, would only ruin the assembly lines with their prideful, stupid bumbling. I can see them now, spouting about their bloodline and their heritage and uttering nonsense idioms that are supposed to be meaningful, all the while telling you how you're beneath them."

Valin narrowed his gaze at her. "Your own Navigators are also techworkers, aren't they?"

That gave her pause. "We allow our clan members to choose that which best suits their strengths. No one here is only 'for one purpose.' I've done the work of every level in this place. Can you imagine your Inventrix scrubbing broken vats of old, moldy protein? I have. And will do so again."

"And yet, here I am—both a Navigator and a techworker and of the Cog Clan." Valin tried to force his voice to sound even. Logical. Even though his anger was stirring through the fear of being separated from his squadron. "These three here, though Navs they may have been born, are all intelligent. All they need is training. I can teach them. Place us together and your assembly line will run smoothly."

Silence met his statement, but the Wolf cocked her head to the side. "Ha. I should have you all scrubbing waste treatment cisterns."

The silence stretched until even the guards began to fidget.

"Then to the forges with you all." The Wolf made a dismissive gesture and the guards strode forward to encircle them. "But know, Seven, that if anything—anything at all—goes awry, then I'll consider it a breaking of your given parole."

Valin nodded.

There must be only one reason the Wolf would put them to "good use."

She needed all hands put to work, needed the Wheelteeth Clan going at full steam. She needed the forges making more of their poorly made, quickly cobbled together gryphons.

They were readying for an attack.

But Valin didn't know if the Wheelteeth were planning an all out attack on the Cog Clan, or if the Inventrix was coming for them like some forge-fire demon ready to attack the Wheelteeth stronghold.


Either way, he would find a way to save his squad.
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