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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #13: Shadowfall


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valin waited in respectful silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clever, selfless Third Leader, Valin thought.

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

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

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

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

Zefir made a small hitched sound and his wings trembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No sound from Valin. Perhaps a slight nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And you?" Valin asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His squad was crumbling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"First flight, last flight," Zefir intoned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Enough!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valin gave only a curt nod of his head.

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

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

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

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

And he knew why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zefir dipped his head in acceptance.

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

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

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

Then he told his First everything.

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