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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.

Read Part 10: The Truth Is Unkind

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