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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #5: Abominations

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

He'd lost the dragon's trust.

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

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

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

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

And he leapt for Zefir's tail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough, Valin thought wryly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Mirror-kind," Valin whispered, shuddering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zefir—sad? Lonely? Because of him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptable, Seren had said.

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

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

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

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

The dragon hesitated. "I promised her."

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

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


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

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

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

"Can you help her, Mother?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother shook her head.

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

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

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

Zefir saw now why Seren had been so afraid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Ketch gryphons.

The Wheelteeth.

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

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

A burst of searing flame came with it.

Read Part 6: Was It Within You All Along?

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