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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #15: Uncompleted Designs

Zefir halted in his tracks when he saw Neri lying inert on the lab table. For a moment he wasn't certain if this was part of one of his false memories.

He swallowed around the sensation in his throat—breathe, breathe, he could breathe, yes the breath was there. Three minutes, fourteen seconds. He closed his eyes and opened them again, seeing his wolf friend still vacant-eyed on the table, her chest panel open to the world...and empty.

Ferrei stood next to him, arms crossed over her chest as Kirwen stood in silence. But he moved around them both, spying Seren with her microfyer goggles strapped over her eyes, a steady stream of nonsense pouring from her lips. The half-shrouded dragon sibling had grown since last he saw, and now its head was revealed—more slender with a pointed snout, its eyes still closed in sweet repose, its brass hide shinier than his own, not pockmarked or scarred from time in the air, crashes, or from battle. How pure the dragon sibling looked, and a surge of jealously mingled with the rage that heated his breath enough that a flicker of flame burst from his lips

He thought he saw the dragon's longer and thinner tail flicker, saw the half-finished wings twitch—wings that once finished would be twice the length of his own.

Furious now, he leaped forward, grasping Seren; he wanted to shake her, to crush his fingers around her so tightly that it would be hard for her to breathe. His fire-heated breath puffed in her face, and she blinked, the microfyer making her eyes look too large.

"Why?" he demanded, forcing her to look at him through those bedamned goggles. "Why would you hurt, Neri? Godsdamn you Seren, she loved you and this is how you repay her? To rip her apart like some—some useless mechanical?"

Seren blinked slowly, unable to focus on him. "Not love, no, no. Close but not quite. I was saving her...part of her will live on in the sibling dragon. Yes, so close to the awakening! And there, hopefully I've made it to love. To cherish. To see the beauty in life!"

Zefir growled, "Why are you such a blood-ridden monster?"

That made the Inventrix open her mouth in surprise. "A-A-A monster?"

"Damn you," Zefir said, voice hoarse. "Do you even realize what you've done to her? To me? You're sitting there as if it was easy to take her heart away, as if she meant nothing to you." He gritted his teeth against the need to shake her, for his fingers to squeeze tighter. "Do you know that I now question the reality of everything around me? It's crushing me, Seren, and you did this. And you care not a whit."

Her eyes were brimming with blood tears, magnified a hundred fold. "A-A monster...?"

"Yes," he hissed. "A monster. You tinker with our lives, but we mean nothing to you. To any of you." Zefir cast a look in the direction of Kirwen, but he couldn't help but feel some resentment for his Second as well when he gestured to them both with the sweep of one wing. "We're tools, to be used and expended if it suits you. I'm Mother's battle dragon, another tool in this endless battle. I'm Kirwen's prisoner, useful to her only because she may now have her own destructive mechanical. And to you—" he pushed his snout close to Seren's face and scented something very wrong, the fetid smell of an ill body, "—to you I'm an interesting specimen to pull apart. Just three minutes and fourteen seconds of living in the ten hells. And you gifted that to me."

Kirwen darted forward, a protective determination in her stance. "Child, put her down. She didn't harm you intentionally."

"I'm no child," he said coldly. "Not anymore. She saw to that. You've all seen to that. You're all monsters, all three of you."

"N-No," Seren whispered. "No, no, no...I'm not a monster." Her voice rose to a shriek; she tore the microfyer from her face and hurled it across the room to shatter, gaze turned inward. "I'll not be your predicted monster, my predecessor. I won't betray my mirrors!" Slowly, she studied Zefir's dragon face as if realizing for the first time that he was gripping her. "Oh, I'm slipping. Dearest Forge Gods, let me finish my work before the end. I'm not ready and neither is she."

His clawed hands were shaking as he carefully set Seren down. His claws had pierced through her heart as she leaped—

Seren touched Neri's inert form on the table, and collapsed to her knees on the stone floor, clutching at her chest as if it pained her. "Zefir, I only wanted to give you another like yourself, so you would never be lonely again. Because I won't be with you for much longer. Neither will your mother. And you'll outlive your dearest Navigator, just like we of Inventrix blood outlive our wards." She gestured to the sleek dragon snout poking from beneath the dust cloth. "This is my last gift to you. And to-to Neri. For when I'm gone, she would've broken, never to awaken without me. Now at least some part of her will live on."

Zefir didn't want to feel guilt when her eyes watered and a blood-tinged tear trailed down her cheek. He wanted to cling to tightly to his anger, and try as he might, he couldn't. The internal fire died.
"And yet," Seren said, "I'm letting the inventor's need crush me. I-I'm so sorry, Zefir. Please tell me I'm not a monster."

Kirwen spoke up from her corner. "You're not a monster, lissteri. Quoc il donenc. Varess was manipulating you, as she did with us all."

"Not a complete lie. I made the Trial and broke us apart. The only thing that ever mattered was being of one yet three." Seren shook her head wildly and curtly gestured her mirror away. "It's too much. You don't need to absorb my pain."

It seemed the two mirrors were in silent communion with one another before Kirwen nodded reluctantly, and turned to Ferrei. "She won't hurt him. But if you're still duty bound to the dragon, make certain he doesn't touch her in anger again."

Ferrei nodded firmly and half-signed so it shall be, clearly wondering if the Wolf Leader could read it.

"And you, dragon," Kirwen said sternly. "I may have claimed you as one of my wards, but I won't stand for you distressing her so. You may push her into a memory lock so deep that she'll never be free of it. She too has her own false memories to wrestle with, so don't be so quick to judge." Her voice dropped, croaking in a whisper, "Tell her she's not a monster."

Her own false memories? He remembered the awful sound of Seren's screaming while in memory lock; he shuddered, finally understanding that manner of fear. Zefir swallowed around a thick sensation in his throat, his wings fluttering like malfunctioning tremors. "What happened to you three? What is the Trial?"

"Just..." Kirwen breathed out slowly as if to steady herself. "I know I haven't earned a favor from you, far from it, but if you still care for her in the slightest, then tell her she's not a monster."

Seren was gently stroking the brass nose of the dragon sibling, but the voice that came from her was startlingly cold and venomous. "When the tests begin, Seren, you'll see where your nature lies. And I think with your joyful innocence and reliance on the virul-microcog bond, that you'll be the true monster of the three. I'm so glad I created a third instead of just two, my descendant. Watching you try destroy Mirena and Kirwen will be most illuminating for the next growth."

Zefir stifled a cringe. Is this what he would be like living with the false memories? Would he be muttering to himself, fully engaged in what wasn't? Or was this a true memory she recited?

He was reluctant to touch her, lest his anger reappear to frighten her. But when she muttered so strongly to herself in another voice, it was best to add touch to take her from the past. He pressed his nose into her chest, gently—oh, so carefully—and again scented that decaying smell, acrid and powerful. Zefir wondered how long she truly had left. He carefully listened to the rate of her breath, the beat of her heart, and the hundred sounds of the blood and organs within, but they all sounded stilted. Malfunctioning.

"I'm sorry, Seren," he said, feeling the tingle of tears threatening. "You're not a monster. You're my friend. You know that, don't you?"

A weak smile was his only answer for the span of ten heartbeats. Her arms surrounded his snout and she buried her face against him, saying, "I do, dear heart. I do. You're the best thing that's happened in my life, and I've lived a very long time. I only wish I'd met you sooner." Slowly, she raised her face from him, her pupils oddly star-shaped, as if they had splintered. "And that's why I'm doing this. I won't let you live like me—a life of generations, lost and without connection. Your sibling is close to awakening. And then you'll teach her how to fly! Oh, how I wish I could see her first flight."   

Zefir turned his attention to Ferrei, who was close to the sibling-dragon, staring at it with a frown. His Second lifted the dustcloth and said, "There's no Navigator control panel."

"Of course not," said the Inventrix dismissively. "How primitive a concept. No, her Navigators must bond with her through virul-microcogs. She gets to choose. She makes the virul 'cogs within her own heart-case, and can gift them with just a quick nip or cut of a claw. Transference, then the connection. Beautiful."

Like the mirrors had with one another. How...telling. But it would also mean that Kirwen already had virul microcogs in her blood and they would easily allow her to become the sibling-dragon's Navigator. Would his sibling know battle as her first flight?

Zefir wouldn't let that happen.

"Maybe you and your sibling," said Seren, "will finally bring back the true purpose of our ancestor's Navigators. To chart and learn. To explore the unknown places. Oh, how glorious such a thing would be."

Ferrei snorted her derision.

Zefir's response was cut short as a young man in a techworker suit, panting for breath, whispered quickly in Kirwen's ear low enough that even Zefir's enhanced hearing couldn't detect it. With only a nod, the Wolf Leader spun on her heel and left their solitary lab with rapid clicks of her boot heels.

Remembering his true purpose here, and hating it, he lifted Seren with his wing while Ferrei moved to inspect the chemicals the Inventrix had been using. Folded in the thin membranous mesh of his wing, Seren grinned, completely engrossed with running her fingers along his cooling-veins. "Beautiful."

Zefir wept quietly to himself; the scent of death was clinging to Seren and grew stronger with every heartbeat. "Seren, I hope you'll tell me what happened to you."

"Allow me to finish her wings..." She shuddered, still clutching to one of the pseudo-metallic bones of his wing. "Then, maybe in the telling you'll find a way to end this all."


Valin made the 'blink slowly' signal to indicate that the next piece he picked up would be the one he needed Jarre to pocket in his place in the line. At Valin's point in the production line, it would be too obvious if he took something from the rotating belt. The Lyth boys circled around them, the same men who had reacted to the threat Valin represented to their grandmere, and glared at the squad with a hawk-like eye.

It made the timing difficult, but production on the line had been increased—desperately it seemed. The brand new, gleaming ketch-gryphons were housed in the back of the cave, checked by every person with a minimal knowledge of techwork, and summarily moved from the forge caves to the launch ledges higher up in the mountain. Valin had lost count of the number of them somewhere around one hundred and fifty. The clangs of the assembly line echoed louder, the gears grinding at an unnatural pace, and the steam puffing magma-hot.

Over it all, Elder Lyth called for replacements in the line, her small, wrinkled face creased in displeasure.

Here was the last piece they would need to fix the bomb and its timer. Valin closed his eyes in a slow blink and then picked up the piece, examining it—even though it wasn't a piece his side of the line would've reached for. Jarre grabbed the piece in his place on the line and at the same time lifted one that had clearly not made it through the forges intact and was thus a dud to be tossed; the true piece made it into his pocket—

But one of the Lyth men darted forward, and caught at the massive Third's wrist.

"What is this?" the man demanded.
Jarre's muscles flexed and he attempted to shrug off the man without drawing attention. "What's it look like, Wheelteeth? It's faulty and I'm throwing it in the return pot."

"Not this one," the Lyth man growled. He was large enough himself to keep Jarre's hand in place, his own impressive muscles straining. "The other one you had."

"Well," the Third said with false pleasantness, "I wasn't born a techie, so it they all look the same to me."

"Spit on a' fire," the Lyth cursed. "You lie, Cog man scum. Empty your pockets."

"Like ten hells I will, boy." Jarre swiveled his wrist and plucked it from the Lyth's hand, taking on a stance that suggested the Third was ready to take a swing.

The Lyth man made a gesture to others—likely blood brothers and cousins—all of whom were of the same size and stature.

Nyru moved from her place in line and came to stand between the two men. "Why are you accosting him? So, he made an error. Leave him be and we can all get back to this blood-ridden work."

"Quiet scum," the man barked. "I wasn't talking to you."

Valin tried to pretend that what was occurring wasn't worthy of notice, but he wiped away cold sweat from his upper lip.

Nyru lifted the scarred corner of her mouth, causing that unnaturally dark grin. "But you are now, boy. Where I come from a youth such as you doesn't speak in such a way to those older than him. Even if you can't seem to hold yourself in a respectful manner, even for the enemy, then heed my words: you're speaking to me now. I'm his elder, his Leader. What's your name, Wheelteeth?"
"Lyth Zareth," he said, raising his chin. "And I'm Director Second, so what occurs in these forge caves concerns me. Tell your underling to empty his pockets."

Damnation and hells, Valin thought, frantic. If the man really was Director Second, he would know that the pieces he found in Jarre's pocket were less than innocuous. But maybe he could convince the young man that the pieces were meant for something other than the timed bomb device. Perhaps a code breaker.

Jarre gritted his teeth, eyes assessing his opponent. Even Nyru was coolly regarding the exits, still standing with her arms crossed as if unconcerned.

If Valin couldn't convince the Lyth, then their only hope of escape was gone. Bile rose into his throat, his heart pounding as he left the line and approached the young Director Second. The youth—likely no more than twenty—eyed him with the same black color of eyes his own mother possessed, the man's nose and chin, while in a masculine configuration, reminded Valin of his own fourth blood aunt.

They say blood always tells. Or maybe he simply wanted to see some familiar features in a man who's blood was his own.

"You know what we're trying to do, Director Second," Valin said evenly. "You can't really fault us for attempting to break the lock code."

Zareth's dark eyes took his measure slowly. "Ah, the Cog scum techie. You failed then, because my Elder made those locks. And no one, not even as a test, could ever break them." He gestured to his blood brothers to form a circle around Valin's squad. "Tell your fellow Cog scum to empty his pockets."

Jarre shared a hopeless look with him, his hands curling into fists. Valin shook his head a fraction, hoping neither Jarre nor Nyru would do something desperate. They would fail if they chose to fight their way out.

"Jarre, show the Director Second," said Valin, his voice nearly cracking with tension. "They know. Empty your pockets."

Jarre spat on the floor as one of the Lyth men around him started forward to physically divest him of his stolen goods, but the man paused as Jarre grinned. The Third reached into his pocket, withdrew the pieces, and tossed them across the stone floor.

Zareth's eyes narrowed on the pieces, lips in a tight line. "What did you hope to do with these? You couldn't break it with this, you fool."

"It isn't in breaking the code lock, but in circumventing it," Valin said, pointing to each piece, one large connector. Forge Gods, let him convince the boy of this lie. "Keep the code on a rotating signature and there's no need to break it. But then, a simpleton boy like you wouldn't think of such a thing. You weren't born to this. I live in this world of creation, and you...you just put together the same shit tech that your old ones did and think it's the finest product."

It was clear Zareth didn't want to admit to the enemy scum that he didn't understand Valin's tech; the hesitation that marked its way across the young man's brow gave Valin hope that this ruse would work. Prick the man's pride so he wouldn't see the truth.  

"I doubt I can even explain it to you so you'd understand," Valin scoffed.

Another voice intruded, and without excessive volume her tone carried, "But I understand perfectly."

Elder Lyth frowned up at him from her small, hunched stature. Her gnarled fingers pointed at the pieces. "This would make part of a timer. But for what, boy?"

Valin's mind whirled. Even if she was a Wheelteeth and not born to the forge caves, she was still Director, and any lie she would be able to see through. He bit his cheek, desperately thinking of how to turn this to his advantage.

"Your code changes after a set period of time," Valin said, knowing it for truth after having obsessed over the lock for hours, days. "Clever, Elder Lyth. Very clever."

"Don't mock me, boy," she said. "And don't think I'm stupid either. Now, tell me what device you've made and I won't have to get irritable. And it has nothing to do with my code locks."

His heart was threatening to hammer right out of his ribs. "You're simply jealous, honored Elder, that one will finally best your codes. Let's say that the winner gets to make flatbread for the other. We both know how best to bake it."

She frowned, hunched back rigid with unease. "If you were not of the Cog scum, I'd welcome such a challenge, young one. But for now, I'm afraid that your secret is at an end." She turned to her Director Second and said, "Zareth, implore our busy Leader to come. I believe we must search their prison for a bomb."

Zareth tried to stifle a shocked intake of breath, but he bowed low to his Director, and was off without question.

Valin shook with the force of his hopeless anger. He'd failed.

He would have to hope that no one would think of where to look for the hidden device.

Or who was hiding it.  

Read Part 16: One Beginning, One Ending

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