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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #14: Last Gift


"It's clear that you don't trust us," said Nyru, hands at her side. Her stare gathered weight, her scar contorting her facial muscles into an unreadable expression. "And that's why, Seven, I can't allow you to undergo this mission with your dragon."

Valin was trying very hard not to raise his voice, but the increasing pressure building just beneath his sternum demanded attention, his blood simmering. "Again, First Leader, if the appropriate chemicals aren't there, Ferrei would be unable to name any of the other options that may work."

"I'm aware of this," she said, raising a brow at his continued insistence. "But I'm also aware that you didn't trust your Leaders enough to give them, no—me, all of the information you had on the enemy. Information that's crucial to us."

Valin frowned. "Information you may not have believed, not when you suspected me of consorting with the Wolf in treason."  

Nyru wasn't one to yell, or scream at her underlings, which had always made her more intimidating in Valin's mind. A simple quirk of her mouth or narrowing of her eye conveyed her displeasure in a way that all of the fierce shouting of other squad's Firsts could never match. 

So when Nyru raised her voice, Valin dipped his chin, stifling a wince. "I've never suspected you of consorting with the enemy. Whatever Ferrei's rantings about you, I never gave it serious thought. Not for a moment. Not even now when I have a perfectly good reason to." She exhaled loudly through her nose. "Good Gods...mirrors of our own Inventrix. And you thought that wouldn't be important?"

"Not to our imprisonment, no," Valin said. "To our Clan..."

It would rock the Clan's foundations to learn that the enemy was lead by mirrors of its own Inventrix.

But how would the Cog Clan react to learn that some of its bloodlines were comprised of children stolen from their enemy?

His blood would be considered tainted with the enemy strain. It would certainly tear them apart.

"To our Clan," Valin continued, "knowledge of the mirrors would cause panic. Mistrust of our own Inventrix. Maybe even calls to vat-grow a new one. Or to never grow another. Just as the Wheelteeth have done." His voice lowered, though he was aware it was impossible to discuss this without the rest of the squad listening. "This information could destroy us. Even this squad is a model for being destroyed by suspicion and anger. What if the bloodlines rose up against one another? Or Mirena?"

Nyru hissed that Valin had dared to call their Inventrix by given name.

Valin pushed, his voice insistent. "What are you even now questioning, First Leader?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I'm questioning that you would choose to make the decision on what's best for the squad and for our Clan on your own. I'm also aware that Zefir did so out of fear that we would mistrust him. I'm starting to question what both of you must think of us that you would hide such things."

Zefir was curled in the corner, awake and alert, but he lowered his head in embarrassment; Ferrei and Jarre sat at his feet, Ferrei the clear winner of this hand of cards. Usually their card playing was rather boisterous, but all three were pretending not to listen, uncharacteristically silent.

"Perhaps another of my failings," Nyru muttered. "Another blood-shame. I've allowed this to happen." She straightened in her stance, mouth a grimace. "Right now, with your mistrust and your overprotective nature toward Zefir, you would compromise this mission. I've made my decision, Valin. I'm asking that you believe that I'm doing what's best for our squadron."

He pressed his lips firmly together, but nodded stiffly.

"Don't ask me again, Seven," Nyru said with finality. "When next the Wolf comes for Zefir, Ferrei will go with him. And when the rest of us are sent back to the tech line, we need you to tell the rest of us which parts you need us to steal."

Valin nodded again, keeping in an angry exhale.

Nyru made the dismissive Nav gesture for go about your normal duties.

Uncertain where to go to be left alone—curse this damned prison for its lack of privacy—Valin returned to his cot, his entire body sagging. He wanted to sleep, but knew that would be an impossibility. He pressed the heel of his palms against his eyes, head aching from his pounding pulse. The false darkness beckoned to him soothingly.

He was slowly aware of the creaking sound of someone settling on the next cot.

He took his hands away, blinking at the sudden light. Ferrei had her legs crossed on the cot, her elbows casually on her knees.

Valin bit back on a fierce demand to know what she wanted. Techies were often less than direct out of an ingrained sense of propriety, but Navigators were the opposite. One of many things he liked about Nav society. So he would be direct. "If you believe this is finally proof of my betrayal, then—"

"No, not that." She picked at a rough spot on the cot, unable to meet his eye. "I didn't..." She growled to herself. "Blood n' hearts bedamned. Shit. Piss on the sun."

Valin raised his brow. That was another thing he liked about the Navs. Their carefree attitude with cursing. It was almost their third language.

"I find myself apologizing for much lately," she said, raising her gaze as if in challenge. "And again, I've wronged you. But I must know...if I hadn't said those hateful things against you, or suspected you of the worst crime...would you have told our First everything?"

He sighed. "Please don't turn this into another tally mark for blood-shame."

Ferrei frowned. "I've many marks and owe many debts now. If you'll absolve me of one more—"

"Techies don't collect honor-debts the way Navigators do," he said, waving the notion away in a discussion finished sign.

She began to speak to him purely in Nav sign so rapidly that he couldn't understand any of it, though she was clearly upset. He placed up his hands in the be at peace signal. "I still can't read signs that fast."

Exhaling in frustration, she made one last series of signs. Heed my words. "It's easier to speak of shame with signs. For the most part we speak of blood-debt between one another through sign only."

Though trying to be respectful of the Navigator ways, he didn't want any part of this. "There is no debt, no shame between us, Second. Whatever this is, or you think it is, I absolve you."

She seemed to relax, but immediately straightened from her casual pose. "Then let us speak on your blood-shame."  

Valin opened his mouth to speak, but only shocked sounds made it out. "My shame?"

"You hid crucial battle information from your squad and Leaders," she said, still uncomfortable. "Back home this would lead to exile. But we aren't back home. And I know why you chose as you did."

"You do, do you?" He tried not to sound bitter.

She tapped her fingers, clearly wishing to add meaning with Nav sign but refrained. "It wasn't only because I accused you...or because you didn't trust us. It's because you wanted to protect us, just like you protect your dragon."

Valin blinked in surprise at so candid a statement from his Second. And her perceptive conclusion.

She made the we are the shield sign in an elegant and reverent motion. "And that more than anything makes you one of us." Then she added with a wry grin, "Stupid. But one of us."

He couldn't meet her eye. Such acceptance from one who had hated his very presence—his very being—made that angry, heated knot in his chest lessen into a dull smolder. As Ferrei remained silent, neither looking away from his gaze nor fidgeting uncomfortably, the smoldering embers of his anger dissipated.   

She held open palms to him and then made fists, and crossed her arms over her heart. He wasn't certain what such a sign meant until she said, "I'll keep Zefir safe. Of that I vow to you."

Valin made the acceptance sign. "And that, Second Leader, is the one and only vow I'll ever hold you to."

#

Kirwen peered at Zefir from behind her mask, standing just inside the doorway of their prison. "I'm afraid I must insist, child. I know what befell you, but I need...she will only take measurements, I swear it."

Zefir tried not to let his nervousness show, because the Wolf would hear it the same way Zefir would. But Ferrei assured him that appearing nervous was fine, needed even for their little lie to the Wolf Leader. "I-I won't go with you, Leader Kirwen. Not after...I can't be alone with her."

His fear was real and crawling up his throat, so he had to swallow. He truly didn't want to see Seren again, not when—

"I calculated the distance to perfection," Seren said, her arms outstretched as she made to leap for him from the precipice of the mountainside. The winds buffeted her open flight jacket, the techworker jumpsuit tight against her too thin body. Gashes from her climb covered her hands and arms, her fingers raw. "I can't stay here. I have to run, run, flee like I always do. Never in one place too long, or they'll find me. Kirwen will want to take me back, and Mirena...my thoughts will collide with hers too strongly and it'll slowly kill her. Please, Zefir. Don't move, or the numbers won't match, match..."

Zefir hovered in place, hoping that with each wingbeat the little dip his body made wouldn't—

She leapt for him and before he could catch her, Seren's body crashed against the rock with the sickening sound of shattered bones—

He grunted, snorting, blinking his eyes of the (false?) memory. "You won't take no for an answer...You'll threaten my squadron if I don't come with you."

Kirwen's expression was hidden behind the wolf mask. "Not if you don't force me to break my oath. But time is short, and if you won't come, I'll do what I must."

Ferrei was standing in front of him, one hand curled into a fist, while the other was placed on Zefir's chest as if she could shield him from Kirwen. That small bit of contact rooted him to the present.

"Either I go with the dragon to make certain no one mettles with him harmfully again," Ferrei growled, "or you can walk right back out of this prison and leave us here to rot in the tell hells. Threaten all you like, Wheelteeth."

Kirwen's wolf mask turned slightly in Valin's direction. "Why not send Seven?"

Ferrei's voice raised, and she pounded her fist on her chest hard enough to make a primal thud. "You'll look to me for answers, you bedamned Wheelteeth demon, not my subordinate. I'm Second Leader of this squad, and the dragon is our most prized possession. Too long we've allowed you to interact with a mere wing runner. And a blood-ridden techie at that."

Zefir could hear a hint of wry amusement in Kirwen's tone. "I see. So your First sends one of the Cog Clan's oldest and most trustworthy bloodlines instead. What are you? Let me guess...Rathe? No, you're too hot-blooded for that. Ah, wait... Quarethstra. They always bred spirited ones."

Nyru stood with her arms crossed over her chest and her unreadable scarred grin-grimace. "We know of your own blood. Why keep the mask on, mirror-kind?"

Those stony wolf-eyes flashed. But Zefir could scent the strange burning copper scent of Kirwen's anger. She reached up and tore the flight mask from her face, throwing it across the room where it landed perfectly at Nyru's feet, no doubt calculated to perfection. The First simply stared at it as if unimpressed, though Zefir heard the shocked lurch to Nyru's heartbeat.

It was one thing to be told the enemy leader was a mirror of their own Inventrix, and quite another to see it firsthand, especially partially rendered in pseudo-metal.

Ferrei sucked in a slow breath, and her blood-cousin clenched his teeth against a response.

"You know nothing of my blood," Kirwen snarled. "Only what you've been fed by Mirena. You're blind, all of you damned Cogs. And even when you're not, you deny what's in front of you." This last seemed aimed at Valin, but she returned her eye to Nyru. "So, blood of Kerlan, you're one of the youngest Navigator bloodlines, aren't you? The first to be First for your line? What, six generations?"

Nyru's cheek jumped. "I'm the third of my line to be named First Leader."

"And do you know the name of your line Originator?" Kirwen's stance was rigid, the guards on either side of her uneasy.

The First picked up the wolf flight mask and examined it coolly. "The name of my Originator isn't for the ears of an enemy. Even one that looks like my Inventrix."

Kirwen strode forward, violence in every step. The copper scent boiled off of her skin, pricking Zefir's nose. Though Ferrei was still in front of him, Zefir gently moved her aside; he paced to stand directly behind his First, his wings slightly outspread. He lowered his snout to keep just over Nyru's shoulder, his worry at the Wolf's anger seeming to vibrate within until he quivered.

"Kerlan Xenthi," said the Wolf, baring her teeth. "And you look so much like her." Her entire body trembled with the force of her growing rage, her eyes pits of black hellfire. Her voice lowered dangerously, "I'll have them back. I'll have you all back, or die trying."

Zefir puffed a breath at Kirwen, hoping to distract her the way he'd learned with Seren. "Leader Kirwen?"

She blinked, her eyes losing a bit of fire. "Yes, child, what?"

Those had been Seren's distracted words when she was deep within her obsessive mindset.

He tucked his wings back in a hunched movement, and stared her in those fierce eyes with his chin tucked downward. Trying to look as innocent and frightened as he could. Like the child she called him. "I'm ready to go now. Our parole and your oath will still stand. But I'll not leave without one of them going with me."

"I find it odd your Navigator hasn't even bothered to accuse me of breaking my oath," said Kirwen. "What has him so silent?"

He knew she would find it suspicious that Valin wasn't insistent on going himself.

For Kirwen's benefit, Zefir cast a terrified look in Valin's direction. Though now not purely for show as another of his worst memories threatened to consume him, pushing into his thoughts—

Valin's eyes were glassy. Empty. No heartbeat thudded in his chest, and yet his Navigator's mouth formed words: "You killed me, Zefir. I will hate you as I rot away. I should've never flown with you. I should've helped your Mother tear you apart to make a better battle dragon. A faster, smarter, vicious mechanical beast that would obey me, not some idiotic, cowardly child."

—until he tamped them desperately back down.

Valin would never say that.

"I-I can't be around him," Zefir said wretchedly. "The worst of the false memories are...are..." He swallowed. "Of him."

Not completely a lie. And in this case, he hated that it was so true.

But Zefir pushed on, hoping she would believe him. "I've renounced him as my Navigator."

Valin hid his shock well, and he turned his back on them all, hands clenched into fists.

"I see." Kirwen clenched her teeth, the cords of her pseudo-metal neck stood out. "Then so be it. Bring the Quarethstra hot-blood. But do so now."

With Ferrei striding in front of him, he followed the Wolf Leader back to the laboratory that had been the scene of his ruination.

#

Seren stared at the complexity of the dragon form on her worktable. Her mind whirled with half a dozen calculations (a mere half a dozen, so she must be exhausted). Already its sleeker form looked faster, its not-yet-finished longer wingspan would be able to go distances without overheating or exhaustion, though she needed to check Zefir's wings for reference.

And though she hated it every time she looked upon those feet, she'd given her creation claws (petite ones, but still claws), so Kirwen wouldn't try to take her dragon away from her before she was completely finished. Such was her growing fear that in the middle of building, she would whirl around looking for her mirror, fearing Kirwen would be standing right behind her.

The dragon would be smaller than Zefir, petite and sleek in comparison—

Zefir. How she'd ruined the child he was, forcing such pain on him that his innocence and trusting nature was damaged forever.

She wouldn't do the same to her creation.

Seren patted the narrower nose (which would help with stability during tight twists in the air), and peered at the closed eyes. Soon. Very soon and she would finish her dragon's heart-mind, which she could do easily with some reference on how Mirena had made such a device to love. Oh, Seren had tried her best to make such a thing happen, but she wasn't sure if it would work.

Time was growing short. Her mind was fraying at the edges, and the inventor's obsession was so all-consuming that she could rarely tear her mind away from it for even two minutes.

No, for three minutes, fourteen seconds.

She would finish this dragon sibling, or die trying.

It would be her last gift—to Zefir. To Valin, whom she must find. Yes, and make him swear to look after her dragon when she was gone. Yes, she must find him.

Seren almost plunged back into other thoughts when she heard a familiar whimper and sensed the brass wolfling mechanical stir at her feet. Kirwen had been right to place Neri in with her, as the wolf always knew when to nudge her from her deepest thoughts.

"Chase?" said the wolfling hopefully, nudging her hand with her warm nose. Brass ears twitched uncertainly, and she whined again.

"Soon, my pup, I'll not be able to chase anything." She knew the wolf wouldn't understand, and tears threatened, but she pushed them back with her Inventrix's iron will crumbling. "The end is near, darling companion."

Neri's own simple heart-mind had been built to be trusting and loyal. To bond, because Seren had desperately needed such a thing after the Trial, after their three mirrored minds would never be together as one again. Neri would never bond to anyone else, and though the wolf had taken a liking to Zefir, it wasn't the same. Neri would expire without her, the wolf's heart-mind shutting down into eternal rest modus without the presence of her creator.

It wasn't quite love, not that, but wasn't trust what she needed for the dragon? She could alter it, yes, alter...but the base would be there...

Seren's mind was so aflame it was painful. It would be better this way. Now the hot blood tears spilled as she gestured the wolfling up on the workbench.

And plucked her oldest friend's heart from Neri's chest panel. 

Some part of the wolf would live on in the dragon.

Read Part 15: Uncompleted Designs

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