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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #17: Of Kith and Kin


Valin stood with his hands in fists as Lyth Zareth poked him yet again with the muzzle of a flechette rifle, seemingly for no reason. Nyru remained outwardly unconcerned and impassive, but every time the Lyth boys dropped the muzzle of their pistols a fraction, Jarre would tense up as if considering a wild leap upon them all, then would relax when their First would frown.

And still the assembly line moved along without them, chuffing its usual inexorable music, gears grinding with the speed at which they were throwing together all of the pieces for the ketch-gryphons.

Elder Lyth sat upon a chair placed out for her, her mouth in an ancient, jowly frown, her hand on a cane one of her many descendants had brought to their esteemed Director. Every fifteen seconds or so the Director would tap the butt of her cane on the stone floor to the beat of the line's whomp-whomp-whomp-hiss, only for Valin to realize he'd been nervously tapping his foot to the same beat.

The heartbeat of a second-level tech, he thought wryly.

Zareth forced the muzzle against Valin's arm with enough force to leave a bruise, so Valin spun about; the other Lyths lifted their pistols quickly. Valin met the young Director Second's eye and said calmly, "I would truly appreciate if you didn't bother to show your very obvious superiority by poking at me like a child."

Elder Lyth's eyes flashed. "Zareth, the Cog scum is baiting you to step inside his guard again. Either step far enough away to where he can't attack you, or so help me boy, I'll let him strike you as a lesson."

After her blood-kin stepped away from Valin, she ignored Zareth to say, "Care to make this easier on you three by telling us where you hid the device?"

"I don't know what you mean," said Nyru, the scarred half of her face taught.

"Oh, dear, well then," the Director said with a wry smile, "I'll take great joy in seeing you say as such to Leader Kirwen."

As if summoned by her name, the Wolf entered, her intricately created brass hands in fists, her expression contorted in such fury that Valin instinctively took a step back; her eyes flashed, and when she spoke her voice was taught with contained violence, "So many idle. Go back to work and finish your duties."

The men holding the rifles on Nyru and Jarre hesitated, but lowered their weapons when their Leader affixed them with her molten stare. Only Zareth remained when the Leader nodded that his presence as guard would be tolerated.

Then the Wolf turned with a sinuous motion Valin had only ever seen water snakes make, as if she were to bare her fangs, coiled before the strike. She ignored his First, clearly dismissed his Third, and took two steps closer to Valin.

"You," came her voice through clenched teeth. "You have broken your parole for your squadron by trying to escape. Tell me where you've hidden your bomb device and I will spare them, for I'm well within my rights to tie you all to the Exile Posts and let you wither away."

Valin squared his shoulders to hide his fear. "The Exile Posts are only for traitors and the treasonous, and since we're not of your Clan—"

"You are of my Clan!" she roared. "You, Seven Valin, are mine. I've returned at least one of your blood to its rightful place! And I won't stop until all have been reclaimed!"

Zareth stiffened in surprise at Valin's side, and Elder Lyth blinked her old eyelids, opening them wide.

"She stole them from me!" Kirwen's voice rose over the din of the assembly line. "My wards! Our children! I'll kill her, I'll murder her with my last breath for what pain she's caused me! She took my children from me."

Valin could see the madness in her eye, the violence with which she might strike him with her superior Inventrix-like strength. But if she thought he'd bow to her like all of her Clan underlings, he would show her the strength of his people, his Clan, and his blood.

The strength of Seven. Of the Lyth. For they were one and the same.

"She didn't murder them," he said evenly, chin raised. "You know it, Kirwen. You knew that Mirena would make them her own. Those children that were once yours are now hers. Ours. The men and women you go to fight are the very same of the blood that you lost all those generations ago." He thrust a finger in Nyru's direction, only for his First to begin a protest, but stopped when Valin shook his head. "Kerlan Nyru is of the Cog Clan. Her blood was once yours. Kerlan Xenthi, you said. You knew her ancestor. Her Originator was once of the Wheelteeth." He saw only Nyru's shocked expression, her scar making her bewilderment look both grim and almost comical. "But how many of her kin have you slain in the skies? If her kin are yours, then you've committed the worst crime of both our Clans."

The Wolf Leader was trembling with rage, her mechanical fingers spasming.

Valin pressed on, "You've murdered your own. Countless times. For as long as this hellish war has been going on, so too have your lost children fallen from the skies at your hands. Did it never occur to you to ask if this Clan's children and the blood of those lost wanted to return?"

"Of course they wouldn't want to return," Kirwen spat, her dark eyes flashing. But there was a deep sadness welling behind them, fighting against her anger. Or perhaps, alongside her anger. "Mirena's been feeding you lies, feeding you hate. Selling you histories as she wrote them, not as the truth. Hiding your origins. And did you react with joy, Seven Valin, to know that you are now home?"

He pressed his lips together against saying anymore.

"Or did you hide the knowledge from your squadron?" she sneered.

What was done, was done now. No more hiding.

"And what of your lies, Leader Kirwen?" he asked, specifically using her title. "Your own people think that my Clan killed your children when they were taken. No wonder their hatred has only multiplied. They wage a war of righteous vengeance, but it's neither righteous nor truly vengeful. And look, Leader, one of my blood spits upon the idea that I am of her line—her family." He thrust an unerring finger at Elder Lyth, while still addressing Kirwen. "You manipulated us into learning the truth. What did you expect to happen? That she would open her loving arms to me? One of the Cog scum that has been fighting against her and her people? One of the very men who has been building engines of war to murder her friends and family?"

Kirwen took a trembling step toward him, her expression so terrifying in its fury that Valin had to swallow around the lump of fear in his throat. She could strike him and that would be his end.

"All of you little babes are so shortsighted," she said. "After only four generations, no one wanted to hear the truth. The rally cry of taking back our children was lost in the din of time, no matter how I insisted, no matter that I was their Leader. All the Elders of this Clan held a Ceremony of the Dead for our children. Because after that much time, the ones taken from us were indeed dead. No one cared about the children's children. No one cared about the blood—the families—that were still from us." Pain etched itself across her features, fighting with the rage for dominion. "But I remember when you short-lived all forget. I remember what she stole. I remember my own granddaughter being taken, how she wept for her mother. My little one, my darling, and I stood there, passing her weeping to one of the Cog Clan women come to take them. My belly raging in humiliation and helplessness and hunger, knowing that she would be fed, would survive. But I vowed, I swore to all the deities that might listen, that she would return to me. To my daughter."

Valin's breath was stolen from him. The shock of her words rocked truths so long held within him that he could only croak them in protest. "Inventrixes...can't have children. It's physically impossible."  

She cast him a bitter smile, and laughed. "My predecessor designed me so I was never truly an Inventrix. Including that."

He shook his head in denial.

Kirwen's voice dropped into a hoarse whisper. "Even your bloodline name mocks me. She had been the seventh child born to the Lyth that year, and I had teasingly called her Seven. My little granddaughter loved her nickname more than her true heart-name." Her eyes watered, her mouth trembling in a way that made Valin's chest ache in sympathy. "My Morra. My little Seven."

Valin had nothing to say. Here was the name of his line's Originator. No, not truly. If he dared to think further back, here was the woman standing before him, his true line's Originator.

"My daughter," croaked Kirwen, "never forgave me for failing to get her back. Morra grew from a five-year-old into a woman without us, living as one of you. And her mother never recovered from the pain of losing her. Even on her deathbed, my aged daughter spat on me, cursing my name until her last breath. And in that, I failed my vow, I failed as a Leader. My purpose, my only reason for being was to protect my people. And I failed."

The silence was oppressive, even with the grinding gears and steady puffs of the assembly line's engines.

Kirwen's expression hardened into fierce determination. "When the battle to come is over, when I am the victor, our children will be reunited with us. In time, we'll be again as one Clan, and the hatred and blood-debts will be forgotten. But I will honor my vow, and perhaps my daughter will forgive me wherever her spirit may reside."

It was Nyru who spoke, voice almost soft, "If what you claim is true, then you'll watch us die fighting. We won't surrender. And I know my line would gladly fly to the sundisk to stop you."

Again that bitter smile. "Xenthi was always proud to a fault. So it seems are her children."

"One thing you haven't considered, Leader," said Valin.

"Oh?" she mocked.

"You haven't asked your Clan whether or not they want their lost children back." Valin listened to the sharp sound of her contemptuous laugh, but he turned to Elder Lyth, who was tapping her cane again to the beat of the assembly line. "What say you, honored elder? Would you welcome one such as me, and all the Seven line, into the Lyth family?"

Elder Lyth's face screwed up, she pursed her lips, and spat on his boots. "To the ten hells with all of you, you wretched, murdering scum."

Kirwen roared, "Enough!"

Shaking, she gestured curtly to Zareth, and jutted her chin at Valin. "Bring him. Then take the others back to their prison after you've searched it thoroughly."

Zareth didn't jab him, but remained at a distance, glaring as they followed after Leader Kirwen, marching up from the oppressive heat of the forge caves and into one of their spiral-filigreed hallways. He could see the manic way that men and women darted to and fro, some carrying necessary equipment, still others with cleaning equipment for the takeoff ledges, moving upward on liftcarts. The Wheelteeth's mountain was a flurry of activity, chaotic and barely organized; a sharp contrast to the orderly forge caves.

Kirwen halted in her marching steps. She shook her head, voice frantic, expression wild. "No, no... I'm coming. Hold on until I arrive."

Without word to his guard, Kirwen sprinted away from them, her legs pumping with a speed no true human could ever match, and was quickly out of sight.

Zareth prodded him and quickly stepped back from Valin's reach. "We still go, scum."

The Lyth man pressed their pace, half jogging after the Leader, when Valin heard a throat shredding scream echo through the hallway. The kind of scream one heard repeated in their memories for many a year afterward; it was the sound of immense anguish torn from the deepest part of the soul.

Valin didn't need to be prodded. He broke into a run and the young Lyth stayed just behind him. When they came around the bend, sunlight from the old windows cut into the rock itself streamed over Kirwen, making the parts of her brass skin glint in the light; she had collapsed to her knees, doubled over in pain, eyes squeezed shut tightly. Her mouth was partly open, and a wretched sound came from her. Sobs, he realized, though there were no tears. Inventrixes didn't weep, but then again—

Slowly, clear tears streamed down her cheeks. And then in a torrent.

Valin stood near her in awkward silence, allowing the woman to deal with her pain. Zareth nervously shifted from foot to foot.

Making certain his movements didn't appear threatening, he knelt at Kirwen's side, aching in sympathy for the woman who was his enemy. But pain was pain, and loss was loss—for he realized what this must be. Zareth lifted his rifle as Valin placed his hand on her shoulder, hoping he was lending her some small bit of comforting weight. He said nothing. He simply sat, wondering if his presence was needed or wanted. When her sobs reached a crescendo, he squeezed lightly, and said, "I'm sorry."

A half sob, half laugh burst from her, a wretched smile on her face. "You are so much like her. My daughter. She would've done the same before the loss warped her."

"I am truly sorry, grandmere." It seemed right to say such a thing, and so he felt no shame in uttering the strange family connection.

Her expression contorted in surprise, eyes distant. For a moment he was certain she would fling his sympathies back at him when her lips curled into a furious snarl. But her bloodshot eyes cleared, and she met his gaze. "The child."

Zefir.

She leaped to her feet and sprinted with that unnatural speed. As he chased after her, Zareth yelled threats at Valin to stop. Not if Zefir was in trouble. Even if the man tried to shoot him—

A flechette bolt pinged on the stone near his feet, and another whizzed by his shoulder to shatter a nearby window. But still he ran.

#

Zefir was floating in a dream he knew instinctively wasn't his own. He wished it were a pleasant one, but somehow he knew it wouldn't end well. When he heard Seren's voice, younger, stronger, his dream-self knew this was one of her memories:

The sheer pain streaming into her body made her cringe. It wasn't her own, of course, but through the open connection—weaker than before, thank the Forge Gods just this once for that—the agony of her mirror's burned body almost made her crumble. Not just physically, as walking to sit at Kirwen's side was a small eternity of hells, but mentally—the pain flayed her mind. It tore at her with bright claws, rending, scattering her thoughts like a wolfling racing through a flock of river blackbirds.

As Zefir worked his way toward consciousness his grasp on the memory was beginning to fail. Desperately, the way one devoid of sleep will fight to stay sleeping, he tried to remain with her. She wasn't dead, wasn't gone, she was alive, her sensations and thoughts so clear.

And now awake, he was struck with pain—not Kirwen's pain of being burned, but his own. Voices changed from muffled and watery to distinct and razor sharp; Ferrei was speaking, an unusual note of alarm in her voice.

"You need to step back. You can't...no. No. What did I say?" And then he heard her feet scuffle. "Back I said. Don't touch him."

"Why?" chirruped a bewildered voice. "I can help, yes. I can. Not sleeping, no."

Zefir opened his eyes, the light lancing through to his aching head forcing him to squint.

Ferrei stood between his prone body—gods and hells, he'd fallen on a wing and it was stiff and numb—and his sibling. The sibling-dragon was standing now, cocking her head this way and that, bobbing like a curious bird. Her spiraling horns gleamed bright, her ears swiveling toward him as he stifled a groan. Those bright violet-eyes blinked and she smiled such a harmless smile at him that he ignored the pain in his head to return the smile.

"See?" said his sibling. "Not sleeping. I said as much. But you didn't listen, small thing." She snorted a puff of air at the Second Leader. "I can help."

"Don't take another step, flyer," Ferrei warned.

Not that the Second Leader could stop her if she chose to harm Zefir. So, with slow movements, he rolled himself to his side, placing his hands on the ground and immediately wished he didn't need them to walk. He held his hands to his chest, and groaned.

"Zefir?" Ferrei's face appeared,  practically climbing over his snout, and she looked down into his eyes in relief. "Sun be praised. I thought you had...I wasn't sure if you can truly..."

"Die?" he croaked.

"Die," repeated his sibling. "Death. The end." She frowned in a way that also made Zefir clamp down on a bitter laugh, for she was obviously pondering her words and their meaning with a hefty, childish weight. "Lifeless..."

When Zefir had awoken to life, the words had already been in his mind, but he didn't know how to speak them properly, or how to arrange them in sentences. Mother had instructed him for almost three weeks before could speak properly. So it seemed that his sibling was far advanced of his infancy, and could already make herself understood.

He peered at her horns and her claws, knowing that Seren had sworn not to give her creation any of Zefir's battle traits; but her horns twisted gracefully above her, blunt, not deadly at all, and he noticed a small puff of air come from the top; her crystalline claws were sharp, but they were small things, barely inches long. Her wings were folded elegantly against her back, but he could tell that her wings were so long that they were folded four times, the bones of her wings thinner, lighter, and oddly jointed.

"I can help," she said again hopefully.

"My sibling," Zefir rumbled as amiably as he could manage. "Yes, you can help me. Gather the bandages on the far table—"

"No, not bandages. Not for you." She shook her head in exasperation, and another puff of air came from her spiraling horns. "I can help keep the pain away."

She held up her right hand and a strange metallic liquid glinted from within her claws; he realized that her claws were hollow, and she made a concoction within her body and was extruding it through her those hollow-tipped claws.

"Poison," Ferrei warned, placing up her fists.

Zefir shook his head slightly, but even that pained him. "No...it's not."

Zefir tried to sit up as well as he could, but his sibling sprang at him, ignoring Ferrei's fists as the Second Leader struck at her. Those violet-eyes were searching the extent of his wounds and holding her claws over his chest; the shimmery liquid fell on one of the burns. The liquid stung, and then became numb. A sigh escaped from him.

"See?" said his sibling, lifting her broad wings to keep Ferrei at bay. "I'm good at repair. Does it still hurt?"

Oh, how he loved Seren even more for this. Not a battle dragon, not at all. To repair or destroy. And his sibling was made to repair. How he wished Seren were here, how he wanted to hear his lost friend's easy laugh of bright joy and wonder.

He knew what Seren would've said to him: Of course, dear dragon, I would make her to heal.

"Hands," he said, holding them out.

She sniffed at his hands with the studious intensity of one taking her job seriously, then more of the metallic liquid dripped over his throbbing hands; he watched as the liquid settled into some of the burn holes in his pseudo-metallic flesh, solidifying, much in the way Mother's repair-gel had helped regrow flesh from the gash in his side.

"Thank you," he said softly, and she grinned at him, bobbing her head. "But can you...repair burns on humans?" At the quizzical tilt to her head, he clarified by touching Ferrei with his tail. "The 'small thing.' They're humans. Can you help repair her too? Her hands are bleeding."

"Oh!" she gasped in such a way that it reminded him of Seren. "Oh, I should've scented the blood. Of course I can. It is more difficult, and I must taste first. But I will help the small thing."

His sibling turned with her unnaturally swift movements—quicker than a river serpent—and she plucked Ferrei up. As the Second Leader stared into those violet-eyes, cursing in surprise, the sibling-dragon's pale brass tongue lolled out of her mouth and she...licked Ferrei's face. Stunned, the Second Leader's cursing cut off in mid "ten hells and demon-shit" when his sibling smacked her lips, thinking.

"No infection, so that's good," the sibling-dragon proclaimed. "I'll make a salve for the burns, and then we really must bandage them."

Zefir's eyelids felt heavy, and a pleasant lack of feeling in his chest and hands made him want to sleep. "What else is in the concoction you gave me?"

"A microcog sedative to make the thoughts in your heart-chamber slow for a brief span of time. You can enter rest modus now, sibling." She set Ferrei down, but still kept one hand on the Second's shoulder. Protectively, Zefir thought. "Sibling. Kin. Family. This is a good thing, is it not?"

"Yes," he said before he closed his eyes. "You're my kin. My family."

"Family," she said wistfully, and then repeated, "You're my kin."

He managed to open a mountain-weighted eyelid and noticed her claws had retracted, but not before leaving a oddly colored salve on the Second Leader's palms. Ferrei stood, clenching her teeth in mistrust; as the salve did its work his Second stared down at her palms in disbelief. His sibling began carefully and expertly bandaging Ferrei's outstretched hands, which were a third of the size of those gentle dragon hands, the dragon humming quietly to herself an eerily familiar tune.

"You're a healer," said Ferrei in a tone of disbelief.

His sibling blinked at her, smiling, revealing small rows of sharp-looking teeth. Ah, so Seren hadn't left her creation fully without some kind of self-defense. "And you're my kin, small thing."

Zefir released a weary chuckle before he fell asleep. 

Read Part 18: Debt of Blood

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