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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #12: The Curse of Memory


The heat of the crucibles pressed against Valin's skin, until the Wolf passed through the forges and into a cooler space—a laboratory the likes of which was arranged in madness.

"Zef!" Valin cried.

The dragon's brass hide looked too pale, almost sickly, his quicksilver eyes dull. Zefir moved forward, not with his usual happy stride, but like placing one leg in front of the other was too much effort. Zefir collapsed down at Valin's feet, closed both eyes, and said in a pinched tone, "You're safe. Safe."

The terror lodged itself in Valin's chest, pressing down, making his heart thrum a rapid beat that forced its way into his throat. "Zef, what happened?" He fell to his knees and touched Zefir's cheek—the brass flesh too feverishly hot—willing the dragon to open his eyes again. "Who hurt you?"  

One brass eyelid lifted a fraction, his obsidian pupil no more than a contracted pinprick. "Get away from me."

A voice came from behind him, "I...miscalculated."

He didn't leave Zefir's side, but the mirror woman came to him, wringing her hands, a wild look on her innocent face. There were tracks of dried blood down her cheeks, heavy around the corner of her eyes. Had Zef attacked her? No...he wouldn't.

"What did you do to him, Seren?" Valin rose to his feet, allowing rage to consume him now.

But the mirror's eyes were glazed. "I don't need to duplicate, yes, that's the problem. Not copy. Create and test and fail and create again...experiment. It's the only way of the blood, the need."

"Ten hells take you." He grasped her shoulders and when she wouldn't focus on him Valin grasped either side of her face and bade her look at him. He could see blood pooling in the corners of her eyes. Dear Gods o' the Forge, was she weeping blood tears? "Tell me what you did to him, Seren. Tell me how to fix it."

She held up her hands to stop him from shaking her. "I-I took apart pieces of his heart-mind, but took too long. I miscalculated." A single blood tear detached from her lashes as she blinked, and Valin released her in surprise. "He won't let me look at him to see if there was any permanent damage."

He looked over at Zefir, watching the dragon's breathing, hearing a faint wheeze. But already Zefir's color seemed to be stronger, more metallic. Zefir fought to keep his eyes open, and the dragon breathed, "No. Stay away from me." 

Valin was torn between insisting that Seren take a look, and snarling at the woman to stay away from his friend when she'd already hurt him. Instead, he turned to the silent Wolf and thrust his finger at her. "You failed to keep to your oath. You swore none of us would come to harm, and yet you allowed this."

She placed up a placating hand to stall him, that wolf mask showing no emotion. "We must see if your war dragon fairs well. Then we may debate over if your parole still stands. Or my oath."

Zefir's wings hung limply, but he tried to cover himself, and shrank back from them all. Slowly, Valin came forward, and knelt at his side. He placed a hand on the brass flesh of Zefir's cheek and saw for the first time that the dragon's chest panel remained open. "Zef, I can't see if there's something wrong with you. I-I wouldn't know what to look for. You need to let Seren—"

His voice thundered, "NO!" And he inhaled a great gout of air afterwards. "Get away from me, Valin! You all died and it was my fault. I killed you all."

"I don't understand, Zef."

"I do," said Leader Kirwen, walking forward as if approaching wounded animals ready to flee.

Slowly, she knelt down next to Zefir's head and with a gloved hand reached for his snout. Valin caught her wrist, squeezing so hard in fury that he wondered if his grip would break bones, but she didn't even flinch. That blank wolf flight mask regarded him, the eyes behind it sharp. He felt her tremble—in anger?—her muscles tightening.

"Child," she said softly to Zefir, "will you let me help you?"

Zefir's gaze was wary, and Valin hated to see that same look of hurt creep over his features when he turned his large eye to Valin and then away again. "Why would you want to?"

She slowly reached up to the mask and began to unstrap it with a single hand. And when her face was revealed, Valin only grunted in acceptance of her identity as yet another mirror, albeit one with part of a brass skull.

So it seems my world is cursed with mirror-kind.

He knew she could overpower his grip at any time, and released her.

"Because you're hurting, child. I told you that I don't hate you, and you must believe it as truth." Her voice rose in steely conviction, "As of now, you're no more than another child in my keeping, and I'll not let anything else happen to you."

Valin wanted to protest this leader of the enemy trying to placate his friend with insincerity, but something inside of Valin believed she spoke the truth. 

"I promise, child," she said, voice still low but vibrating with certainty.

Zefir let out a hitched sound, very like a sob.

The dragon lifted his torso from the ground, exposing his inner workings. Such was the web of machinery within that Valin's techworker mind was simultaneously intrigued and baffled at the madness of complexity he could never understand. As the Wolf regarded that mass of macro and microcogs, she touched Valin's arm with a gloved hand and gestured to Seren, who rocked back and forth on her heels, fingers digging into her temples.

"Take her away so she can't see," said Leader Kirwen. "She might...try to interfere. And her presence might upset him. Your presence might as well."

Suspicious of her motives, he nonetheless saw her reasoning. Valin rose and went to the other mirror-woman, noticing her regarding a cloth covered workbench, something large underneath it that quivered. He clutched at Seren's shoulders, pulling her away, when she went limp and fell to her knees, shrieking, "You're no Inventrix, Kirwen!"

Seren's voice sounded like another person. And he reasoned that perhaps it was, the mirror repeating something heard long ago in memory. It was a terrifying contrast to hear a vicious person so unlike her, voice dripping with scorn. "You'll be the first to fail the Trial! Gods, look at how I made you. No drive or ability to create, just to lead—and you can't even do that! No one wants you to be their shield, Kirwen! You're no protector. What a waste of vat-growth—"

"Hold her, or ten hells take you!" the Wolf barked.

Valin grasped Seren's blood stained cheeks. "Look at me, Seren. Focus."

Those eyes were still glazed, but her fingertips found his face; her fingers were digging into his cheeks as if forcing herself to remain attuned to his speech. "I destroyed his beautiful innocence."

"Don't be so certain of that, mirror-kind," he said softly, but enunciating carefully. 

Seren released him and held her head in her hands, her mind already distant.

Valin remained at her side, hand on her shoulder as he turned to watch Leader Kirwen gather tools and a set of microfyer goggles. Zefir remained very still, his expression a pained wince the entire time she explored. Valin met the dragon's gaze and tried to give him an encouraging half-hearted smile, but Zefir looked down at the ground as if in shame.

Finally, Kirwen sat back, took off her microfyer goggles and sighed. "I'm sorry, child. I can't erase the false memories. They will be with you like normal memories and will fade with time. I'm sorry I couldn't do more, but though I know more about machinery than all the techworkers combined, I'm no Inventrix."

False memories? Valin struggled to understand, then realized: Zefir's heart was also his mind, and while Seren had meddled with it, so too did she meddle with his mind.

"What false memories?" he asked his friend.

Zefir still wouldn't meet his gaze.

Valin rose, leaving Seren weeping at his feet, and came to stand in front of the dragon. 

"Zef? Whatever they were, you can tell me."

"Leave me be." Zefir's chest panel was now closed, his brass hide once again smooth like true skin, as if Valin had never seen his inner workings. "Just...go. Please, Valin."

"You once made me promise that if ever my worries became too heavy, that I would tell you. The same goes for you, my friend. You can tell—"

"No." Not growled or spoken in anger, but his tone was resolute.

Kirwen was still kneeling in front of the dragon, watching him, a small furrow of concern at her brow. Slowly, she took off her gloves, and Valin saw the delicate pseudo-metal make of her fingers. She placed her bare brass hand on Zefir's trembling side, and the dragon flinched.

"Your false memories were made from your deepest fears, child." Kirwen gently stroked his side until the trembling began to diminish, and Zefir slowly nodded. "Speaking of it may lessen their potency. If you wish, I'll take Seren from here."

Again Zefir hung his head, looking so weary. "If you're granting wishes, Leader, please...leave me here...alone. Take Valin and Seren with you."

Nodding seriously, she rose to her feet with the unnatural grace of the Inventrix-kind. With a gentle movement, she scooped up her weeping mirror-kin into her unnaturally strong arms and cradled Seren, gesturing to Valin with her chin.

Zefir's eyes were brimming—with tears? Valin had never seen such a thing, didn't know it was possible. But something inside him crumbled to see it.

"Zefir—"

"Go," his voice rumbled desperately.

Valin turned to walk from the mad Inventrix's laboratory, pacing by the Wolf's side. Before he could speak or lash out in smoldering anger, Kirwen turned to him. "Your dragon doesn't wish you to see him weep. He'll be safe locked in the lab...alone."

That painful ache grew larger.

He opened his mouth to blame her, to rant against her allowing this to come to pass, because he knew that Seren with her unstable mind wasn't truly at fault. The one in charge of looking after the mad mirror was.

But Leader Kirwen said, "Please have the decency to wait until I've settled Seren. At least grant me that. Then we may begin the battle of words."

"A small parlay then, Leader Kirwen." He nodded to the guards outside the caverns who drew to his side like ever present hounds. "But know if anything like this happens again, I won't hesitate to find a way to strike at you. And so will my squadron, parole be damned."

Her eyes became flinty, her features carved in stone. For a moment she looked so much like his Inventrix that he shivered. "It won't happen again. I've laid claim to the dragon as one of those under my keeping, and you have no idea what that means to my kind."

Seren whispered, "I hurt him. I killed the boy he was. I killed him, I killed the child!"

Kirwen shushed her mirror and nodded to the guards.

As Valin strode toward his prison once more, his thoughts were filled with all the painful ways he would make the leader of the Wheelteeth pay for her crime.

#

Zefir didn't want to go back to his prison, not with the others there. As he approached the door to the familiar cavern, his heart stuttered to think on seeing them again after—after he saw them...after they...

Died. All of them. In different ways each time. And it was so real that—

"Kill them, Zefir," Mother said coldly. "Kill all of the traitors."

Zefir shuddered to see his squad lined up before the entire Clan, tied to posts buried firmly in the ground in their little mountain valley. The Exile Posts the Elders called them, casting wards against evil with their old, gnarled hands. The sootfoot children, smudges on their cheeks, snarled and spat on Ferrei's brave face. Navigator children threw stones that struck Valin across the forehead, bleeding now in a dozen places. Nyru was no longer conscious after being struck hard enough. Jarre still strained against the ropes binding him, his large muscles bulging, but the vat-cleaners threw nightsoil over them all.

The Clan's eyes blazed with hatred, their lips curling back, spittle flying. The Elders of each bloodline jeered. The other squadrons held their aerorifles aloft.

"Prove you're not a traitor too, little one," Mother said, her own eyes colder than the mountain snows. "Destroy them with your flame."

They weren't traitors. But no one would listen to him as he protested their innocence. And soon those who jeered turned in his direction. The Navigator's aerorifles turned toward him.

"Kill your squadron." Mother's granite features were forbidding. "Kill them and be free. Then nothing will hold you back."

He was weeping. Everything felt ice cold inside.

"Kill them, little one," said Mother, her eyes blank of emotion. "Or would you rather watch as the Tamer's wolves rip them apart?"

Zefir felt the fire building within, and still weeping he released a gout of flame—

He shook his head so hard with his eyes closed that the Wheelteeth guards around him made surprised sounds of protest. He didn't want the doors to open, for his squad to greet him as if he wasn't responsible for their deaths in countless ways. One of the guards poked his flank with a rifle, and Zefir whirled around, baring his pointed teeth. "Touch me again, Wheelteeth, and you'll be no more than ashes. I've done it before, and won't hesitate to again."

The guard, larger than Jarre by two heads, took a step back with wide eyes. Recuperating quickly from the fright, the guard pressed the series of buttons for the door panel, no doubt eager to rid himself of his dangerous charge.

The door folded back on itself wide enough to let Zefir enter. He closed his eyes again for a brief moment, whispering, "Three minutes, fourteen seconds."

And he stepped inside.

The door closed with finality behind him.

Jarre stood closest to the door, and the man regarded him with a concerned frown that evaporated, showing his usual grin. A grin Zefir was beginning to think was a protective mask almost like Kirwen's wolf face. The big man moved to pat Zefir on the arm, but Zefir flinched and stepped backwards.

His mechanical heart was whirring wildly inside, the heat growing alternately with a cold flash.

Valin stood with his arms crossed as if embracing himself, his tired expression creased with worry. Sleepless bruises had grown beneath his eyes, and Zefir was very certain that his Navigator had lost weight. The searching look Valin gave him almost made those hated tears form in his eyes again.

The Wheelteeth guard—wearing a skull-carved flight mask—lifted his aeropistol. Valin lunged for it, but the guard was quicker. Zefir knew he could make it to the guard in time, knew that his mechanical speed and the sheer mass of his dragon self was no match for the Wheelteeth guard. But his body remained immobile. It didn't want to move. No, he didn't want to move. All he felt was apathy.

And so he watched without feeling anything as the aeropistol fired. The flechette burst through—

He wanted to shake his head, but instead gritted his teeth so tightly that his jaw ached.

Nyru watched him with a strange distance in her eye, still sitting on her cot. She too had lost weight, and her face appeared gaunt. He wanted to see her rise to her feet to demand information, to gather her squad in a circle, but her gaze turned inward.

Ferrei had her usual wry quirk of the lips as she walked up to him, crossed her arms, and said, "Out with it, dragon. What did those bedamned Wheelteeth do to you? Valin refuses to tell us."

What lie could he tell his Second? What lie could he tell them all? No, but Valin would know. Had he told the squad of Seren? Of Kirwen?

He snaked his neck and placed his snout at her level, hoping that he would sound sincere. "One of their techworkers thought that they could study my inner workings. I allowed them to do so, Second, in order that our parole would stand if I worked with them willingly. Only that techworker touched a node that caused me to lose consciousness—" not completely untrue, "and then I awoke. I'm fine now."

"Don't ever let those filthy animals touch you again." Her gaze narrowed. "Your Navigator must have believed by refusing to tell us, that he would hold off our collective fury at your mistreatment. Well, he was wrong. And I'm particularly the vengeful type. Runs in the blood, makes it boil."

Ferrei's face creased in terror as she fell from the sky, and Zefir desperately plunged downward after her. He reached for her, his fingers stretching, but his claws got in the way and sliced through her fragile human flesh—

Zefir hissed in a breath. Three minutes, fourteen seconds. Another breath. He could breathe; in through his nostrils and out. There was air; he wasn't suffocating. Three minutes, fourteen seconds.

She met his eye with her unflinching directness. "We'll make them pay, dragon. We'll make them suffer for what they've done. To you. To all of us."

That's not what he wanted. Not at all. Though he was angry, he didn't want to see this mountain stronghold fall...and all its people with it. Not even the guard he'd threatened outside, or Leader Kirwen. And certainly not Seren. He knew he should hate them. And he realized slowly, that he never really had. Not even when he was fighting them in the sky. The only thoughts in the air had been to protect Valin, to protect his Clan and his squadron.

Did that make him a traitor like Mother had accused?

Only that hadn't been Mother.

So internal were his thoughts that he almost started when Ferrei placed a hand on his nose and patted him awkwardly. Zefir blinked. Ferrei, the one who'd called him an abomination was patting him amiably. Was this another false memory? It couldn't be real.

"Come, dragon," she said, gesturing. "Let me show you what we've been working on that will get us out of here and back in the air."

Reluctantly, he followed her to her cot, and she knelt down, carefully brushing aside some loose rubble. Her fingers cradled the strange looking device, and she lifted it, smiling her tight-lipped smile in pride.

She held it out for him to see. "It's a firebomb. One that your Navigator's shown me how to time properly. But once we obtain the chemicals, we can escape. We can be free, dragon. You can be where you were meant to be—in the air destroying our enemy."

Ferrei, face streaked with blood, lifted the ceramic firebomb high like an avenging demon from the ten hells. She stood up in the flight straps holding her to the ornithopter, which was even now grinding its primary gears as its wings ceased. Face creased in acceptance of her fate, she aimed two firebombs at the nearest gryphon. But as she aimed one, the ceramic shattered in her hand.

The firebomb burst in a deafening explosion.

Zefir cried out and batted the device in her hand away with his nose. Roaring, he watched the firebomb clatter against the stone floor, several broken pieces flying in all directions. His aching wings lifted and he spread them to their utmost, as if he could lift her from the danger.

"It's about to go off!" he yelled.

Ferrei clapped her hands over her ears, glaring at him. "Do you know what you just did? Do you have any bedamned idea?"

Quickly, she darted for the device, but Zefir caught her in one of his hands—

But his claws got in the way and sliced through her fragile human flesh—

He shrieked, blinking down at his Second Leader struggling in his grip. Unharmed. But she was glaring at him, her eyes sparking in fury. "Release me, flyer!"

"Everyone down!" Zefir bounded on his three limbs, holding her tighter. "It's going to go off!"

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

Zefir squeezed his eyes closed and hunched down, blocking her body with his own, encircling her with his arms, neck, and wings, desperate to shield her from the oncoming explosion.

I am the shield. He closed his eyes tighter.

Slowly, he became aware of a voice. No, two voices.

"Zef, listen to me. Just focus on my voice. Ferrei is safe. She's safe, just let her go. Can you do that...for me?"

"I know what's wrong." Jarre?

Zefir couldn't help but shiver as Ferrei ceased to struggle in his unyielding grip. Worried that it meant he'd been unable to keep her from the explosion, he shook violently as he opened his hand, fearing he'd see only her lifeless body; she lay in his palm staring up at him, no longer angry, but puzzled.

"You've no idea, Jarre," Valin said wearily.

"You don't have much experience in battle, squad-brother," Jarre said, carefully approaching Zefir. "So respectfully, Valin, I know more than you in this case."

His Third made gestures to Valin and to Nyru, who stood in the middle of this as if waking from a long dream.

Retreat, Jarre motioned.

Valin stood his ground, but when Jarre made the gesture again with the authority of a Third, Valin slowly acquiesced, standing next to Nyru.

Jarre's deep voice vibrated, "Do you know where you are, Zefir? Answer me slowly."

"I don't want to see it again," Zefir whispered, and another surge of memory accosted him.

Jarre flexed his muscles, climbing higher on the cliff face, sweat pouring down his cheeks. A rope was tied to his waist, and below him, climbing themselves was the rest of his squad, also tied to Jarre. They were climbing to rescue Zefir, to release him so they could all fly from this alien mountain. Jarre's thick fingers slipped...

As he plummeted, so too did the rope jerk taught. All those attached to him began to fall...

"—listen Zefir, where are you now? Think very carefully."

"You and the squad are on the cliff face..." No that wasn't right. "I'm..." He looked down at his hand and there was Ferrei, rigidly still. "I'm still in the prison...with all of you."

"Yes, that's good." Jarre stalked closer, gesturing to his blood-cousin to stay still. "You're in no danger right now. Repeat it back to me."

"I'm...in no danger." He looked around him wildly, looking for the firebomb. "It's a dud?"

Ferrei met Jarre's eye and a series of quick gestures conveyed his concern to her: Stay calm. No sudden movements. Battle shock.

Ferrei said quietly, "Yes, a dud." Uncertainly, she reached up to clasp one of his large fingers in both of her hands, holding tight, her eyes glinting in understanding. "You're trying to shield me...aren't you?"

His aching wings were fluttering with his distress; they felt too cold, his joints grinding painfully. Tears were burning again, and he hated that one dared to slide from between his eyelids and down his cheek. Stupid, loathsome tears.

"I failed," he croaked.

She shook her head. "No you didn't. Look. We're both hale and whole. You...were trying to save me."

He heard the faint surprise in her voice.

"Zefir," she said gently.

That couldn't be right. Ferrei only ever called him 'dragon' or 'flyer.' Never by name. His name was an unlucky curse. Flyers didn't have names.

"Zefir," she said again, still holding on to his finger. "Thank you. We're safe, all of us."

She was safe. They were all safe. Valin and Jarre and Nyru. His squadron. His family. This was real.

Unable to hold himself up any longer, Zefir collapsed to the floor, still holding Ferrei. Every muscle seemed to sag, the weight too much. His wings fell limply to the stone floor, and with a concentrated effort he lifted a single wing to cover himself and his Second Leader. Ferrei remained seated in his palm long after he had the strength to hold her.

Exhausted, he wept until a dreamless sleep had him in its clutches.

Read Part 13: Shadowfall

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