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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #18: Debt of Blood


Zefir heard the lab door unlocking, and though he wished with all his might that it would be Valin, he could sense who it was standing there, her pain sharp against his insides, pressing, wrenching, until the cold sensation spread in sympathy.

Kirwen burst through the door, and while she looked briefly at the outline of the body beneath the sheet, her eyes flashed in a strange mixture of sorrow and anger when her gaze fell on Zefir's wounds. She marched forward in that eerily predatory manner, her mind focused on—

My ward. Who dared to harm him? I failed once more to protect what's mine. [death to the perpetrator— overwhelming rage].

Zefir shook his head at the thoughts he knew were not his own. The power of them was astonishing. Was this even a fraction of what Seren shared with her mirrors? If so, how could they have lived with this uncomfortably intimate connection, much less yearned for it?

Kirwen placed her hands up toward Zefir. "I must inspect your wounds—"

"I'm fine," Zefir assured her.

"Fine?" said the Wolf incredulously, her brass fingers reaching for his chest. "You've been burned. I can smell the acid. You're in pain. Tell me how this happened."

This last was said with all of the command of an Inventrix expecting to be obeyed.

He wanted to lie. He wondered if she could sense his own rolling emotions with the same strength he had hers.

"I spilled the acid when I—"

"Don't bother to lie to me, child," she barked, turning an eye on his Second. "You're protecting her."

Death. No mercy for the one that harmed my ward [boiling rage].

"It wasn't..." Zefir croaked the words, his stance settling into a tired, wilted posture. "I was...protecting my sibling from Ferrei." Before Kirwen could blurt out her anger, Zefir continued, "She didn't mean to hurt me. Ferrei just...misunderstood."

Ferrei stood very close to his dragon sibling, the creature only twice the Second's considerable height. When Kirwen glared at his Second, Ferrei dropped her gaze to the stone floor. The Wolf paced forward, murder in her eye.

Zefir moved to pounce upon Kirwen, if only to pluck her up into his hands, but one of his sibling's wings unfolded, and spread to cover Ferrei completely from their  sight; the sheer length of them boggled his mind as he wondered at their size; she could easily wrap Ferrei three times over.

The dragon sibling cocked her head at Kirwen, and pursed—pursed!—her lips. Her voice was more serious, deeper, "Hmm, I don't think I like your tone, small thing. No, I don't like it at all. You must speak nicely to my kin."

Kirwen stiffened in surprise. "Kin? You are mistaken, young one. What has this damnable Quarethstra woman been telling you? It's clear she intends to harm you. Come away with me now and—"

"Your tone, small thing." His sibling's brow ridges, smoother than his own, narrowed. "Mind it around my kin, who is also my patient. She needs rest, not—not this."

"Patient?" Kirwen mused. "Of course, she made you to be a healer, didn't she? Perhaps as good as a doctor bloodline of the first level."

"I fix, I repair," said his sibling matter-of-factly, her snout raised. "Now, small thing, retreat to the corner until your anger is under control. Then you may visit with my kin-patient when she wills it."

"Come away, young one," Kirwen said with a curt motion. "We'll leave this blood-ridden place and this—this woman who tried to destroy you will be punished, I assure you."

"Your tone," growled his sibling, showing her small rows of very sharp teeth. Her wings fluttered, and she hunched herself into an intimidating defensive posture. "Back away, small thing. I'll not let you have my kin-patient." Her claws came out, and a dark liquid dripped from them, smelling acrid. Dangerous.

If she tried to attack Kirwen, what would the Leader do with her? Or worse yet, if his sibling managed to kill the Leader—and part of Zefir despaired at that, despite all the threats she'd heaped upon them—what would the Wheelteeth do to his squadron without their Leader to reign them in?

Zefir was about to growl a command when Ferrei spoke.

"Her tone is deserved, little flyer," Ferrei said miserably, gently touching the dragon's wings until his sibling retracted them. "My intent was to harm you before you awoke, and your sibling—Zefir, he saved you. He took the brunt of the acid concoction I chose to destroy you, and that was how he came to harm. I'm not worth shielding."

The little dragon sinuously turned her head to regard Ferrei. "You couldn't have harmed me with that. My hide is much more impervious to such things. And though my Zefir-sibiling is less impervious, he will scar after a day. Still, that was rather a mean thing to do, my kin. I'll admit I'm not certain why you would want to destroy me, especially before I had a chance to tell you that you're my family."

For the first time, Zefir saw his Second's lips tremble as she held back tears. Not even after Denaru's death did she weep, at least not in his presence. "I owe you and your sibling a blood debt, little flyer. I've failed my vows so many times now." Zefir had never seen the ritual obeisance of one offering their life to another for the deepest blood-debt, but Ferrei bowed her head, and made a beautiful combination of the giving thanks to the sun and the wrist-forehead touching motion of calling to the dead ones passed on. "My life belongs to you."

He inhaled slowly as the temperatures inside his chest wavered, moved by the beauty and sincerity of her words. Of her new vow. The woman who had called him Abomination was now pledging herself to a new dragon mechanical.

The sibling-dragon bumped her wing against Ferrei the way a human would nudge with an elbow. "A ridiculous notion, kin, having anyone own your life." She blinked in true confusion. "Makes no sense."

She turned to Zefir with the open palm gesture. Waiting for him to accept.

"There's no blood-debt between us, Ferrei," he said. "Besides, I've no blood inside me anyway. It's enough that we're of the same squad. I still trust you with my life, Second."

She turned from him, mouth in a quivering line. "I don't deserve your trust, Zefir."

"Truly touching." Kirwen regarded them, eyes glazing over for a moment when—

"I'll always trust you with my life, lissteri. That's one of the meanings. The 'i' for infinity," said Seren, yearning to hold hands.

Zefir closed his eyes for a moment. For though Seren's memories and Kirwen's thoughts were not as terrifying as his own false memories, they were still painful, like an old ache that wouldn't heal.

Kirwen met his eye. "You know why she gave you her virul 'cogs, don't you, child? The true reason?"

He shook his head.

"Not for the reason she told you, whatever it was. No, she did so in order that your heart-mind would purge your false memories from you in order to accommodate the virul 'cogs. Even in the end her selflessness was genuine." She still wouldn't look at the sheet where her mirror lay. "Not that her memories will necessarily be easier to bear. Or whatever you've been able to sense from me."

"Will I learn of the Trial?" Zefir asked as softly as he could. "Or will you tell me?"

Her eyes traveled to find her mirror's body, and quickly turned away. "I hope you never learn of it, child." Kirwen straightened as if coming to a decision, head held high, determined at she stared into his eyes. She looked like the Wolf once again as she held out her hand, palm up. "You must give me the bomb device. Your squadron has already broken their parole, so you gain nothing by refusing. And don't insult me by feigning ignorance. I can more easily sense your lies now that we are irrevocably connected."

His mind was blank, and the gnawing sensation of hopelessness turned into a hollow ache inside. She knew. Their only hope of escape was gone.

Ferrei came from around the dragon-sibling and said, "Here. I have it."

She reached into her flight jacket and withdrew a poorly cobbled together piece of tech that Zefir could only assume was supposed to be a copy. He wanted to embrace his Second Leader for trying such a ruse. She'd certainly made it out of the half-broken pieces of the original when he first broke it.

Kirwen strode forward, grasped the device, and hurled it from her. It shattered against the stone wall, and anger once again etched its way across the Wolf's features. Zefir knew with uncanny certainty that she would never forget Ferrei had harmed Zefir—one of hers. The fury displayed by her failing, her slower death, would only increase into rage-filled madness, and he could sense that her thoughts focused on her life ticking away, fueling the anger.

Kirwen spat, "Did you truly think I couldn't tell that was a dummy?"

Ferrei shrugged, and the dragon sibling craned her wing over her again. "It seems the only dummy here is the one you just destroyed, Leader Kirwen."

Kirwen still held her hand out to Zefir. "Give it to me, child."

Zefir stifled a grimace, and gestured to his battered chest panel. "It is within me. And the panel needs time to heal before it will open. Look, the edges have been burned together. Even if I wished to give it to you, I cannot."

A flash of alarm marred the fury on Kirwen's familiar face. "Tell me it hasn't been armed."

"We didn't have time to fill the chambers with the caustic liquid."

"You're still a poor liar." Kirwen pointed an unerring brass finger. "You're a danger to everyone until I can remove the device. You will remain here, as it's far enough underground and remote enough that the—the explosion won't harm my people." She jutted her chin at Ferrei and the sibling. "I will take you two."

Zefir glared, his skin radiating with the heated shame at his horrible failure. Or perhaps some of Kirwen's anger was infecting him. "If you harm my Second, or any of my squadron because of this ridiculous parole, I'll tear this mountain down around your ears."

The Wolf Leader met his gaze squarely. "Yes, I can see it's no idle threat, war dragon. I haven't forgotten what you were made for."

Silence fell between them, but Zefir could think of no way to break the inevitable stalemate.

"New dragon child," said Kirwen, trying to halt her trembling. Not all the muscle tremors were from her anger, as Zefir could now feel through their connection that her body was beginning to obey her less and less. "I cannot allow you to expire. Come, young one, and I'll explain it to you later—"

"Oh, no," said the sibling, baring her teeth. "I understand only that you are threatening my patients, and my kin. And I fear I must become very cross with you if you try to remove them."  

Kirwen's expression became cold as a the granite mountainside, and in that moment she appeared so like Mother that Zefir had to look away. "So it appears as if they've already turned you against me. A pity." Her eyes flickered over Ferrei. "Well done, Second Leader. I'd say earning her loyalty is much better than destroying such a remarkable invention. And I suppose you will also stay?"

Ferrei nodded once in curt agreement.

"Very well."

Kirwen moved with aching slowness toward Seren's body and knelt next to her mirror. She pulled back the sheet from Seren's face relaxed in death, those empty eyes staring at nothing. Kirwen closed her mirror's eyes, and brushed back the puff of wild, untamable hair from Seren's forehead. She placed her arms beneath the body and lifted her mirror into her arms, moving for the door without another word.

Zefir could feel the vibrating sensation of her sorrow as if his mechanical insides were threatening to stutter to a grinding halt. And he hated that they must be at odds, for perhaps in another life, in a world where they weren't named as enemies, he could've counted her as one of his staunchest friends. Or another parent.

"I'm sorry, Kirwen," he breathed. Sorry for so many things. For her loss and his, for the war, for having to make his threats.

"I know, Zefir." She didn't turn to him, but held Seren's body tighter. "I know."

She left the lab and the door locked behind her.

#

Valin pumped his arms as he ran; the flechette bolt sizzled across his shoulder, leaving a hot trail in its wake. He couldn't yell to Zareth that he wasn't escaping, that he had tried running toward the man's Leader and was focused on the same goal. But all of his energy was spent in dodging around the next bend as the stone ramp went upwards and not down toward the lab; Zareth was getting closer with his shots, and no matter how Valin's side ached and his lungs heaved, fear pressed him faster, faster, the sweat pouring down his back.

He tried to avoid the busy walkways, but as his shooter advanced on him, Valin broke out into one of the broad courses that wrapped around the outside of the mountain. He heard Zarth curse as Valin slammed through the few people who had enough leisure time to remain idle, knowing that his true aim would never be met—there was no way to descend to the lab. To Zefir.

Forgive me, my dragon friend. For the first time in years, Valin prayed to the Forge Gods, urging them to look over Zefir, hoping his friend was hearty and hale. But he feared otherwise.

He heard a bellow as one of the bystanders—a man who wore no bloodline colors, launched himself at Valin. But Valin anticipated the fellow's slow movement, and ducked beneath, spinning to avoid those outstretched hands. A series of screams echoed in fear as the boy—stupid, idiotic boy!—dared to shoot his weapon in the middle of so many innocents. The men and women of the Wheelteeth ducked to the ground, children shrieked for their parents, and Valin almost toppled as a flechette shattered the rock near his face.

Zareth intends to kill. If he stopped, the boy would kill him. If he tried to explain, he'd die. Perhaps the boy had something to prove, or maybe he hated Valin's blood and Clan so much that he'd willingly place his own people at risk to murder him.

He renewed his efforts and remained in the public space, running ever upward through the hallway spiral ramps going up—up. Toward the take off ledges. He spotted men and women in their reddish flight jackets and skull masks, others in repair suits for maintaining the gryphons. Eyes turned toward him as he sped beyond each ledge, now filled with fifty gryphons or more. Their Navigators spied him, one moved for him in confused hesitation. But all would recognize his dark brown flight jacket, rather than their red leather, and the Cog Clan's shield symbol emblazoned on his bleeding shoulder. When he tore off his jacket, his shoulder screamed in pain, and he didn't have enough breath to do more than grunt as he tossed it from him, hoping the other Navs would be slow to recognize him as a threat.

The ledge he was looking for must be close. It had to be. He didn't know if he could keep running, or if—

He had to. From some inner reserve within, he put on more speed, his heart pounding inside his head until he could hear nothing else. He couldn't hear if there was shouting, or the steps behind him. He gritted his teeth and pumped his arms. The ledge was here. It had to be.

It was.

He dived around the corner and ran out on to the ledge, the cold winds this high up battering at him without his jacket. There. They were there! Nyru and Jarre's thopter bombers, and Ferrei's single-person sparrowhawk. If he'd had enough breath he would've crowed in triumph.

Ferrei's sparrowhawk glider was sitting still, its wings retracted into its sternum. The rifle in its snout was likewise retracted, but if he could bypass its start-up systems...he leaped aboard and his fingers danced over the buttons and levers, silently giving thanks to his Third for insisting he learn all of the flyer systems by heart. He bypassed the hawkling's procedure for warming its engines and extending the wings before being able to use the gun.

He checked the indicator to see if there were any bolts left in the chamber, for surely the Wheelteeth would've divested the flyer of its extra load of bolts.

Two—there were two left.

He didn't have time to aim, and the gun wasn't fully opened, when Zareth ran around the corner. He squeezed the trigger. The bolt soared outward and crashed through the carved stone archway that led to the ledge, Zareth crying out and ducking back. Valin desperately pulled the heavy lever to chamber the next round—one, one left.

Zareth blindly stuck his arm out and shot at him; the flechettes pinged against the hawkling's torso. One speared through one of the take-off feet, and the entire flyer listed to the side, so he desperately fought to re-aim the thing.

Fighting for time, he yelled to his assailant, "Lyth Zareth! My intention was only to reach the same destination as your Leader. I mean Leader Kirwen no harm! Keep your weapon, but holster it, and I will return with you to meet with her!" 

"Shut up, scum!" the boy barked.

Soon, Navs would grab their weapons and add themselves to the fray, called by the sound of bolt shots; Valin had little time to convince anyone that he wasn't a threat. Quickly, he began the start-up procedures for the engines, and the hawkling began to hum as its heart ticked, its wings beginning to unfurl.

Zareth rounded the corner, his mouth in a determined line; the boy lifted his pistol, aiming for Valin, his eyes so filled with hate that Valin had no doubt that he had to fire. He pulled the trigger.

But with the hawkling's wings retracting, the flyer yawed; his last bolt flew wide of the boy's chest and buried in Zareth's forearm. Yelling, Valin pushed the sequence of buttons for the legs of the hawkling to walk in reverse. It stuttered, hobbling backward toward the end of the ledge. Zareth still lifted the pistol, and bolts rained against the body of his flyer; Valin heard the violent hiss of the cooling system being shattered. Warnings blared. He felt one of the legs hit air and nothing else.

It wouldn't fly, he knew that. The engine wouldn't start. If he were lucky, he would glide to the ground below, but—

The firing stopped as the boy reloaded, and Valin desperately cried out once again that he would willingly surrender. He even dared to lift one hand up, palm outward, while the flyer tilted, ready to fall.

"You murdered my mother!" Zareth bellowed, blood pouring down his arm. "You and all your blood-ridden Clan! There's no surrender!"

Zareth pulled the trigger. Valin felt the bolt spear through his hand, and he clasped at the bleeding agony, disbelieving of the hole through the center of his palm. Forcing his bloody hand to curl around the Navigator stick, he pushed the last leg of the hawkling out over the ledge and he was—

Falling. Tumbling. Without his jacket or gear, the cold winds tore at him like ruthless fingers; his breath was stolen from him. The wings were spread but he began to spiral downward. Too sharp an angle to correct without the engines or the beat of the hawkling's wings. He slapped his hands against the panel's buttons; he couldn't feel his hands; his eyes watered. The bypass codes, he entered them again to start the engine, praying to any and all that would listen. The ground below grew closer in his watery sight. People below scattered. Harvesters in their green abandoned wares on carts and ran for the entrance to the caves.

The engine stuttered to life. He pulled back on the Nav stick desperately, feeling the wings beating. But it was too late. He began to glide, the nose up. The ground filled his sight.

At the last moment, he threw one of the flight straps over his chest, placed his hands over his head, and braced for impact.

The crunching sound filled his ears, and he closed his eyes as the flyer flipped end over end. The single strap failed him, and he had the sensation of flying—true flight—as his body was tossed from the wreckage.

The only other thing he knew was darkness. 

Read Part 19: A Cry for Justice

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