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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #16: One Beginning, One Ending


Seren's chuckle was a rough, wet sound, but it amused her to think her heart was winding down like some flesh-born clockwork toy. The only toy she possessed as a child had been the first thing she created, a fluttering ornithopter hummingbird that whizzed and hummed, its glass emerald eyes able to detect her motion in order to follow her. She'd named it Beauty.

And Varess had ripped it apart, slamming it down on the worktop with a steely frown, saying in that voice Seren knew she'd acquire as she aged, "Now repair it. Make its flight more stable. At your age I was already building wolfling pups. If you don't do better, Two, I'll be forced to chose One or Three to be my descendant."

It had been a lie. One of many lies. Especially as Seren, at age five, had begun work on Neri in secret, stealing away pieces from the tech lines to spirit to the Tamer caves. There she could watch how the Tamer's wolves moved, calculating the bend of muscle, sinew, and bone as they ran together in tight packs, the Leaders at the front. And of course the feeling of their wet, rough tongues lapping at her, their cold noses nudging at her hands, demanding a pat.

She heard her name called and blinked slowly, eyes aching. Ah, so her pupils had changed shape then, so her time was here. Another two days were she a normal Inventrix, but she could feel it would be a matter of half an hour at best, minutes at worst. "Ah, yes, dear dragon. I hear your voice. Not deaf yet, no. Don't worry, I'll go blind first."

Neri had always liked Kirwen best, or so it seemed. The wolf had been built to follow the motions of the one it saw as the Leader, since that's how Seren had observed the wolves listen to both their alpha-packmates and to their Tamers. And Kirwen was always decisive to a fault, her childish arms making curt gestures that the wolf-mechanical had obeyed with alert brass ears. No bonding for the wolfling, not then. Not until after the Trial. Not until after the Breaking...

Again, she blinked, seeing Zefir's dragon brows creased in an expression of worried pain. Ah, so she was speaking all her thoughts aloud...perhaps even her calculations as she quickly urged the pseudo metal of her dragon creation's wings to grow to their ultimate length, the membranes threading the cooling-veins through them as they stretched.

The dragon-sibling twitched the way a babe in the vat-womb would kick. Beautiful and strong. Her last gift would awaken soon.

Seren blinked again and focused on the woman—from Zefir's Cog Clan squadron if the Navigator's worn brown leather flight jacket was anything to go by, and Second Leader if she remembered what the shield symbol with two stars meant. "Here now, Second Leader, that isn't the one you want."

The woman had been inspecting the variety of flasks upon the work table, surreptitiously wafting a tiny bit of scent toward her nose to identify the correct solution. It was apparent the three she was after, but Seren could make a more stable concoction...

"Yes, yes, more stable." Seren wobbled toward the workstation, her knees joints cracking as she walked, the pain shooting up her spine. "Here now, line of...hmm, Quarethstra, yes? The three you're looking for are here," she pointed, but immediately waved the notion away. "Your Valin is a clever one, but I can do better." She tried to lift one of the large flasks only for her muscles to fail her. "Or rather I can instruct you how to do so. The solutions he's given you to obtain are unstable. If even a drop of this one," and again she pointed, her arm tired and her fingertips on fire, "connects with this one, then you have—"

Seren made the kaboom sound.

The Quaresthra woman pretended to misunderstand, affecting a mild look of innocence. "I know not what you mean, Wheelteeth—"

"Gah! Enough with this." Seren didn't know if anger at her lack of time was normal, but she cared not. "Wheelteeth, Cog, Wheelteeth, Cog. Good gods and ten hells, both were the same once. One Clan. So blinded now by what you think you know of the past, or why you fight, that even were I to tell you the truth you'd dismiss it." Before the woman could bark back, Seren shook her head and was dizzy. She had to clutch at the table to keep from collapsing. "I've no time to explain it to you, but I can help you and your squadron escape."

The Second Leader narrowed her gaze suspiciously, but it was Zefir who nodded, expression serious. "You would do that, Seren?"

She patted his velvet soft nose and lamented that she would never fly with him again. "You were made to fly free, dear dragon. You were meant to soar, and learn, and love, and—" she fought against the tears of regret, hating that her mind counted the minutes flittering by. Fast. Too fast. "I know you go to fight, dearest, but remember you have a choice."

"To repair or destroy," he said quietly in his serious baritone.

Oh, her clever, beautiful Zefir. "And I would have you see your Mother before...before the end. There's so much she must wish to tell you. Mirena is very furious that Kirwen has taken away so much time with you."   

Zefir lowered his eye, exhaling slowly. "I doubt that very much. I'm an interesting experiment, her battle dragon to win the war. That's all."

Seren couldn't help but laugh, even knowing that such a sound would hurt him. "Oh dear one, no. Your Mother has always been all bluster. Inventrixes are not supposed to be made to connect deeply with any single person, but rather to bond with our wards as a whole—in essence you belong to us and with us. But that was never quite true with us. Perhaps because of our three-yet-one bond. Or perhaps it's because Mirena still had enough time to deny that you were more than a ward to her. Oh, Zefir, you're her little one. Her child. And always will be."

Zefir still didn't raise his eye to her. "I know so little of her. Of you. I want to understand."

The dizziness overcame her and she began to fall as the world tilted around her—her mind whirled with formula for a shift in gravity, only to realize it wasn't the world changing. She felt large hands cradling her, those sickle-claws carefully out of the way; Zefir lay down with her and held her in the crook of his arms, humming the same song she'd sung to him:

Hush child, we are here
Three against the world
Hush child, don't you fret
Three to protect your dreams
Cry and One will know
Hurt and Two will soothe
Fall and Three will catch you

"I haven't the time to tell you, Zefir," she said, wheezing. "But I can show you. And know, before you say yes, that it will be yet another burden of memory that I would place upon you."

He regarded her with those large quicksilver eyes shining. "You wish to give me your virul-microcogs. Then we can connect and share memories. Thoughts."

"Clever, beautiful dragon." Her smile hurt, but it didn't matter. "That will mean I'll also get to see yours, you know."

The Quarethstra woman sucked in a breath. "I can't allow this. She's the enemy—"

"Then what better way to understand the enemy then to learn more?" said the dragon, and this close Seren reveled in the soft snick of his brass eyelids as he closed them. "It's my mind, and my choice. And I've made my decision."

But the Second Leader was certainly the clever one as well. "What if her virul 'cogs take over? They were named as abomination for a reason."

Seren heard the deep rumble in his chest as he said with conviction, "I won't let them." 

Oh, if only Mirena could see him right now. She wanted to reach for her mirror so far away, but their connection could never cross such a distance even at its strongest. Part of her had hoped that she would see Mirena again before the end.

He opened his eyes, those large beautiful orbs. "I'm ready, Seren."

She too was ready. With difficulty, she reached for Kirwen. The end is here, my mirror—[joy at the beauty before her]

A faint echo of: [disbelief, anger, refusal of the inevitable] Then: I'm coming. Hold on until I arrive. Don't you dare slip away without me, lissteri.

Focus. She stared up into that quicksilver gaze. Yes, remember him this way, proud and determined, eyes shining and just barely holding back tears—those wonderful and tragic tears gifted to him. Her fraying mind held tightly to this vision, to the sight of his wings enclosing them so there was nothing else in the world. She didn't have the strength to touch those wings, so she tried not to blink, filling her last memories with this.

Her eyes failed her. Blindness. But she heard a hitch in his breathing. Holding his breath, then exhaling slowly. Counting, even as she was counting. "Seren?"

It would be easy now that she was crying, now that she willed the virul-microcogs to gather in her blood as it trickled down her cheeks. "There, dear heart. Kiss away the tears and you'll have my memories. You'll know how to help your squadron escape."

His nose pressed against her face and she tried to smile. But she was so tired now. She wanted to reach for Kirwen once more, but even that was too much effort. "Sing to me again, Zefir."

The sound of his singing voice lulled her into a pleasant dream:

The air arced beneath his wings, caressing and teasing at the same time. The delight made him warm inside, and he craned his neck upwards, eyes riveted to the puffy white clouds streaming lazily above him. And below him, the glittering flow of the river, the green patchwork quilts of the rice fields. Eager now, he stretched his wings and roared with the sheer joy of being airborne. And when his Navigator said, "Let's chase the western wind," he knew that he was the western wind. He was the Zefir, the wind itself, and nothing would ever stop him.

Seren smiled one last time and knew no more.


#

Zefir heard an echo of the scream that seemed born of one shattered. He didn't need to wonder at who had released such a sound that echoed the same roar he wished to make. He expected to feel the terrifying rush of Seren's memories, and gritted his teeth against the onslaught. But there was nothing. For a moment he worried that the transference had been too late, but then he felt a faint tingle pulling at the edge of his senses.

It wasn't a memory. It was Kirwen.

How he knew he wasn't sure, but he also knew that she was sensing, however incredibly faint, his own sorrow. Zefir cradled Seren's body closer with his wings, clutching to her while his own tears unabashedly dripped off the end of his snout to fall upon his lost friend. The cold inside expanded in a way he'd never felt, not even when he'd watched men and women from his squadron fall from the sky. It was deeper, more enveloping, and his breath hitched. Ragged breaths—he couldn't breathe, but he didn't care. Sobs, he realized blearily, they were sobs, but it still felt like the pain was suffocating him.

Would it feel this way if he lost—if something happened to Valin? Whether time or battle or illness...it would happen, while Zefir continued on.

Whatever gods or goddesses looked over him, he prayed it wouldn't crush him.

He was rocking back and forth on his haunches, holding her tighter than he would've dared in life, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He was so cold that the simple warmth of a human hand seemed to blaze white-hot against his hide.

"Are you well?" she asked.

Far from it, but he knew she was concerned about the virul 'cogs. He nodded.

"Zefir," said Ferrei with unusual softness. "We must act quickly, before the Wheelteeth Leader arrives. I need you to see to your duty, even though it's the last thing in the world you want to do."

"Aye, Second," he croaked, voice almost gone.

He settled Seren on the ground, her open eyes staring at nothing when only a moment ago she had been smiling up at him. The Navigators had a saying about eyes open in death, as they seemed to have a blood-ridden saying about everything: The sun behind their eyes is gone, but it will rise in another place.

He didn't know if that was true, but he did know that he wanted to cover those open, blank eyes; with his teeth he took the dust cloth from over his sleeping sibling and placed it over his friend.

His sibling's wings were so bright, the pseudo-metallic flesh shiny and brand new. They were completed now, and twitching as if eager to awaken and spread them to their long-winged utmost.

A memory prickled at him, along with it a thought he knew wasn't his: No time for a completely stable concoction, but mixing two of the flasks will work for a less volatile mix, with the same power once they combine.

He nudged his nose in the direction of the flasks. "Mix a quarter of those two into one, use the gloves on the table. Then you can pour the liquid into the chambers of the device."

The device that was hidden inside his chest panel. He opened himself, feeling slightly embarrassed to be revealing his inner workings to anyone but an Inventrix. He reached inside and gathered the hated thing, and set it down next to her.

Ferrei hesitated, but spoke as she moved, shrugging on the heavy gloves quickly. "Zefir, you need to act quickly. The worst threat to our Clan is in this room."

His aching chest became colder, as if everything inside of him ground to a halt. "N-No..."  

"Yes," Ferrei hissed, working quickly. "That Inventrix made a battle dragon for the Wheelteeth, and if the Wolf Leader sees it complete now, she'll have no need for you. Or for us. She'll take over this weapon, and will use it against our people." She paused only long enough to stare him earnestly in the eye. "You know it's true. The Wheelteeth will use that dragon to try to end our Clan. Do what you were designed to do and destroy it, Zefir. Protect our Clan and do it now."  

Zefir looked at his hapless sibling, her nose twitching as if detecting a smell for the first time. Long, lean, her brass hide gleaming, her long wings more intricate than his own, somehow more beautiful and powerful. For longer flights, he knew. Her tail was also twice the length of his own, thin as a whip and stabilized with small series of raised triangular 'wings' along in a row up to her back. Her ears were longer, situated behind two delicate spiraling horns gleaming metallic; her ears swiveled as if to listen to whatever argument he made to either condemn or save her life. There was a place for a comfortable sitting place for a Nav upon her back, but no control panel, not even a modified one such as his own.

She knew nothing of the war, or the anger between the Clans. She didn't know her maker, or him, or who to trust or not trust. She was an innocent. As he'd been when he awoke. Only Mother had been there for him, that familiar tight-lipped smile and searching gaze at the ready. And she'd said to him when he first awoke: Oh, gods, you're more wonderful than I'd imagined. Welcome, little one.

The only time he'd ever heard Mother use the word wonderful to describe anything.

But the sibling didn't have that. No Mother, no Inventrix, or creator. No welcoming voice to the world. That aching sensation grew, and he sniffled, knowing that Seren at her most stable, as the person she must have been long ago, would've been his sibling's most beloved person. Where could they have flown together? To places unexplored beyond the known parts of this world?

And now he was being asked to destroy her, for no better reason than she could possibly be a threat. Because his Second Leader thought Zefir had been designed only to destroy; but no, his Mother had told him: I created you, little one, to learn on your own. To adapt. I've told you of the war before, but you have a choice. And if you do choose to fight, it must be because you've learned to...to love, and you want to protect that which is loved.

It had been the only time his Mother had ever used the word love in his presence, as if the word were foreign, or difficult to understand. But sometimes he thought, and hoped, that when Mother called him 'little one' it also meant beloved.

He moved to stand beside his sibling, arched his neck, and said, "No."

"Zefir," Ferrei said desperately, pouring the liquids into each chamber of the bomb device with separate glass funnels, and closed it up.

She held out the bomb to him, and it he took it carefully, knowing that if his Second Leader had miscalculated, the bomb could go off inside of him. Even still, he held his breath—three minutes, fourteen seconds—and placed the device back inside of his chest panel, closing it.

"Zefir, you must. We can't let the Wheelteeth have another weapon against us. Destroy it before it becomes a threat."

He narrowed his gaze, realizing how beastly he must look to others, these small human-kind. "Would you have me crush a Wheelteeth human infant in my hands, just because the child might one day grow to be a threat?"

The Second Leader sputtered. "That's not the same."

"It is the same, Ferrei," he said, using her heart-name. Her given name. The name that friends, blood-kin, and mates used. Jarre had once told him that Ferrei meant strength of the iron. It fit so well, in that iron didn't like to bend. "My sibling dragon is an innocent. She isn't part of this war. I won't harm her...ever. Not even if you order me, or disavow me, or cast me from the squad. I'll not let her be destroyed."

Her brows lowered, and Zefir could see by her stance that she'd dismissed his arguments, his decision, but absolutely believed his conviction. She picked up another flask, marching forward, the contents swirling ominously clear and acrid within. He could hear by the steady, strong pound of her heart that Ferrei had made a decision, for better or ill, to destroy his sibling at all costs. For the Clan. For her people.

She hurled the flask at his sibling, and Zefir reacted.

He leaped in front of the flask, moving faster than he ever had. The glass shattered over his chest, but the caustic liquid inside splattered over his skin. He shrieked as the agony made his sight turn dark, as the hellsfire burned. He lifted his hands to bat away the burning, wishing he could claw off his own skin; he was being flayed alive; pain overrode any sense he had remaining. Dark, seared spots were burrowing deeper where the acid corroded, and he clawed at them, screaming.

He saw Ferrei's terrified face, saw her lift something powdery from a jar. She reached in and tossed the powder at his chest; but the torture still coursed through him, and he collapsed to the ground, writhing, desperately trying to keep his wings from touching the liquid. And Ferrei leaped upon him, as if to pin him down with her tiny weight, using her gloved hands to smear more of the powder over him; he lifted his hands to ward her away, but she said, "No, don't."

He could feel some of the burning subside, and frantically she rubbed more of the powder into—into—the tiny holes the liquid had made in his hide, over his panel. He could smell the burning of his own skin, could hear his Second saying, "Sun preserve us...hold still. Gods be, why did you do this? Why?" He could see the corrosive liquid had burnt through her gloves, that her hands were red underneath. "Hold out your hands."

Shaking, he held out his hands and she dumped the entire jar's worth of powder over his fingers, his palm, spreading the powder even though her own hands were bleeding now through the ruined gloves. He could scent her fear now, so powerful it overrode the horrible charred stench of his burnt skin. He could hear her praying. For him or for herself he didn't know: "The light of the sun gives life. In darkness we wait, for the sundisk it rises. Praise be to my ancestors, upon the light they ride—please look over my loved ones. Please make certain they find no hurt, or if it is to be, that they find your embrace—"

"I'm not," Zefir croaked, his breaths in gasps, "ready to fly to the sundisk yet, Ferrei."

The pain was subsiding into a long, dull roar, no longer burning but still throbbing so violently that he keened to keep himself from another scream. Distantly, through his clouded thoughts, he sensed the sharp, white-hot edge to Kirwen's surprised fury. Had he shared his pain with her the way the mirrors seemed to?

[Ward is harmed, protect ward. Rage. Despair at failure.]

"Sun have mercy," Ferrei whispered, her bleeding hands shaking. "Why did you do that?"

"For the same reason," Zefir managed, "that I shielded you from the bomb."

Weakly, not wanting to see his hands, he half made the we are the shield gesture.

Staring down at her bloodied hands, Ferrei gingerly ripped the remaining cloth of the gloves from her. Then closing her eyes, she finished the sign with the most beautiful and graceful motion he'd ever seen his Second Leader make. When she opened them again, she turned slowly to the little dragon lying upon Seren's worktable.

His sibling was regarding him with eyes the color of violet clouds at sunset; she cocked her head to the side like a curious bird, turning her head this way and that to watch him. Then she closed her eyes, and her smaller clawed hands lifted...

And she copied both Zefir's pained sign, and Ferrei's beautiful motion.

When Ferrei gasped, his sibling gave the Second Leader a pleased dragon-smile and made the graceful motion again, her light contralto voice mimicking the only words she'd ever heard, "For the same reason...for the same-same-same reason that I shielded you..."

Zefir was resigned to the fact that today would be a day of weeping. And so when his sibling grinned happily, her head bobbing in a nod, repeating his words again, he let out a sound somewhere between a choked sob and a relieved bark. The pain was overriding his systems, and again blackness hovered over his sight. But he knew his next words to her must be important, even if some of his non-essential systems shut down briefly to allow his overtaxed body to recuperate.

"Your mother," he said, hiding the sound of his pain, "loved you very much."

Weeping, the darkness took him.    

Read Part 17: Of Kith and Kin

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