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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #23: Bred for War


At least there was food and water beneath the ketch-gryphon's flight seat, and Valin gnawed on a strip of dried waterfowl while he downed more of his water. The wind buffeted his masked face, while he adjusted the trim on this bedamned gryphon for the fourth time in ten minutes. The blood-ridden thing had a habit of yawing three-points to the west for absolutely no reason, and it required constant supervision to maintain any sort of course. That and its overwrought engine was overheating again, the gauges already in the upper red. He'd be forced to land in the middle of an unfamiliar forest, in the dark, with this absolutely terrible wreck of a machine.

Hopefully, he hadn't come this far only to crash.

Flying in the dark had its own disadvantages, and while there were small fire-lamps on the gryphon's belly he could ignite with a switch, it would only alert others to his presence—whether friend or foe.

Which one am I now?

The engine gave off a high-pitched whine, and he began searching through his farviewer goggles for a suitable place to land. The wingbeats were beginning to slow, and he angled the bedamned gryphon downward at too steep a downslide, correcting it hastily with a stream of inventive curses. The treetops came within sight, and gliding steadily down was nigh impossible. One of the beating wings clipped the top of a large tree, its needles slapping his neck.

Awkwardly, he wrestled the machine to land, its feet not running fast enough so its beak-nose made furrows in the ground before it came to a complete stop. Valin leapt from the Nav's seat, and began to kick the machine's side, the fury bubbling up until he could only rage at the machine before him.

He'd left Zefir. His squad. And now he'd have to betray his entire Clan to save them.

He kicked the gryphon until he couldn't feet his booted toes.

Three days, only three days. And he'd only flown—he had no idea how far with the gryphon's wingbeat-counter malfunctioning. He took the pencil from his jacket pocket—Kirwen had thought about that too, clothes stored along with food, and so he wore a regular leather flight jacket—and scribbled on the tiny piece of paper he had. The Wheelteeth mountain to the west...half a day's flight... Likely he was in the same mountain range.

He heard a rustle to his left. Valin stiffened. He had no weapon to defend himself. Again he heard the sound of soft leather on the forest floor, and he moved to hop back in his flyer, hoping the bedamned thing was cool enough.

But he heard the tightening of a bow string. One of the mechanical bows with their miniature firebomb arrowheads?

They materialized from the heavy shadows, Khandra's light weak so late in the night that he couldn't tell how many.

Valin raised his hands in the surrender gesture. Why must I surrender at every turn? he thought bitterly.

"Step away from the gryphon," barked a female from the shadows.

He wondered...were these Wheelteeth ground forces? Or his own Clan's? He listened for the sound of horses—either the snorting of flesh-and-blood creatures or the steady whirr-hum of the coghorse gears created from his Clan's techlines.

With aching slowness, he stepped away from the flyer. "Identify yourself."

"Shut it, Wheelteeth."

He wasn't certain if he felt relief that this woman was from his own Clan. Would any of the Riders even know who he was?

"I'm of the Cog Clan," he announced into the darkness.

The bowstring made a tight creaking sound. "Hells and damnation. Not exactly a clever lie, Wheelteeth demon."

"Bloodline," Valin snapped at the figure. "Designation. I want to know what Rider I'm dealing with."

There was a breathing pause. Valin thought he heard other bowstrings in the distance creaking. Indecision?

"Bloodline. Now," he spat, feeling his anger sitting in his throat. "Or you'll find out too late from Mirena why you shouldn't be bothering me."

A sharp intake of breath that he'd dared to use their Inventrix's heart-name. It'd been a calculated risk. She might deem him a Wheelteeth for that, or she'd wonder what his standing was that he felt so comfortable daring such impertinence.

"No," she said sharply, sounding younger than he'd first thought. Were they taking from the younger generation of bloodlines for this last battle? "I want your bloodline and designation."

"Seven," Valin said. "Navigator. Former techworker."

"Former...? Oh, it's you," said the figure, sounding very surprised. "The Inventrix will want to see you, certainly." He strained to hear the sound of her pseudo-metal bowstring relaxing. "How did you escape?"

Valin's anger still stirred, but he knew he had to take the upper hand. Even if he wasn't a Leader and a mere wing runner. "You didn't answer me, Rider. Bloodline. Designation. And tell your scout regiment to stand down."

She made a small snap of her fingers, and he heard other bowstrings relaxing. He'd once heard a Nav mocking the scout's use of cam-and-pulley bows, until he saw just how far those specialized arrows could travel, and what destruction they could wreak whether or not they were of the firebomb variety or not. Valin wasn't eager to learn what being shot with an arrow was like. Besides, he knew while they disdained aeropistols and other flechette weaponry as a matter of bloodline pride, they still carried them as a backup.

"Qinethi Rhin," answered the young Rider. "First Leader of the Tenth Rider Regiment."

As far as Valin knew, there were only five regiments of Riders; but it seemed as if the Inventrix had indeed pulled from the younger generation of bloodlines to add to her coghorse divisions. He shook his head. The coming battle would take so many young ones, an add so many new hurts like the ones the Wheelteeth had revealed. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, mates, lovers—his Clan would lose them too.

And the young ones, he thought, bile rising in his throat. Young ones I'll betray to the enemy.

He remembered Ferrei disdainfully telling him: Your blood doesn't pump like ours, so how could you understand? I would've gladly sacrificed my life. And she would. Even now Valin knew his squadron would gladly die, or let him die, to keep the Clan safe.

Does that make me a coward because I can't lose them?

Valin's vision blurred when the Rider uncloaked her small lantern, and shined it toward his face. No doubt a calculated effort on her part, making certain that she could see his face clearly—and identify him by whatever description the Inventrix had given to the scouts. He blinked the afterimages from his eye before they readjusted, and he could see some of her features. The familiar long and lean traits of the Riders and their scout divisions, sitting astride her coghorse with ease. Young. Perhaps ten-and-six. How desperate was this last push that Mirena would take them to field so young?

Dear gods, so many, so young.

Rhin nodded, the traditional Rider's braid a sharp contrast to the short Nav length of hair he'd grown used to, and she flipped it over her shoulder. She dismounted from the tall cog-beast—its body in proportion to a true horse, its legs jointed similarly but with an extra length in odd places, its dragon-like tail swishing as its Rider touched its shoulder with a single finger; the coghorse, metallic-hide painted over its entire length and breadth with greens and browns, followed. It kept its optical sensors on its Rider and followed after with the whirr-hum of its body in oddly sinuous and smooth motion.

Valin took in the sight with a wonder of a mere second-level tech, as the coghorses and their building were the sole domain of the highest first-level techworkers. Beautiful. Complex. Remarkable. For a moment he imagined taking apart the beast to see where its microcogs and the macro intersected. Perhaps this fascination was in the blood. Or perhaps it was just his own childhood awe.

Rhin gestured for him to follow, and even in the darkness, he could see her quick and sure movements, how she bounded over the rocks in a small stream with casual, effortless hops while still holding her bow. And her coghorse plowed through the mountain cold waters without thought—not like Zefir.

Her bloodline at its finest, he thought wryly. Brought here before her time, to battle in a war she doesn't understand.

They'd all been bred for war.

Valin came to a small, orderly camp of Riders, their tents a forest green-brown and larger than he expected; if he calculated their numbers correctly there were close to a thousand Riders and a thousand horses.

A monstrously huge and intricate coghorse stood at the head of the largest tent, its hide an odd pseudo-metallic silver Valin longed to study, its body even more graceful and horse-like than the other Rider's beasts, complete with hair-like mane and tail. Its obsidian eyes focused on him, and it snorted as if inhaling his scent—in the way that Zefir often did—and it made a whirr-click noise. It grunted, puffing a steam-warm breath into the cold night air, then nodded in a very human-like manner.

Rhin opened the tent flap and gestured for him to enter.

Valin ducked beneath it, and spied: the charts on the table in the center, a small cot, and a—petite child of no more than seven-years-old with an untamed halo of raven hair he recognized...

And sharp, weighty eyes.

The little girl smiled, but not quite a child's smile. As she walked toward him, wearing a small version of a scout's green uniform, she gestured with an adult-like elegance that belied her small stature.

"Take a seat, Seven Valin," said the child. "No doubt your travels here have been difficult after Kirwen released you."

His heart hammered inside, even though he knew that she could hear it, that she could scent the change in the flush of his skin, could taste the sweat that appeared under his arms. There was no use lying. Not completely.

"Not untrue, Inventrix," he said carefully.

"Which part?" the child chimed. "The difficulty of your travel to find us? Or that you freely admit that Kirwen released you rather than having escaped?"

He remained standing, forcing his hands behind his back, his aching hand throbbing with his heart rate. His body would respond favorably to the truth, the lies, however, would be easily noted with her Inventrix senses. "I didn't know I needed to deny that fact. Both of them, by the by, Inventrix. The Wheelteeth gryphons are poorly made, so I nearly crashed several times. And yes, the Wolf Leader released me from my prison..." he had to think of a reason not far from the truth, "...she wanted me to flee back to my Clan, to threaten Mirena."

Those eyes regarded him with the same unnerving calculation he'd seen from both Kirwen and Mirena. Slowly, she nodded. "From what I've been told of Kirwen from my predecessor, such a threat is unsurprising."

"Your...predecessor?" Had Mirena already met her end?

The child smiled, and this seemed more genuine, though still chillingly adult. "Mirena is alive. Please, sit."

"Thank you, Inventrix...or should I call you child?" Though his instinct was to obey without question the orders of his Inventrix, he balked, lifting his chin. "How long ago were you vat-grown?"

He'd never heard Mirena laugh without it sounding mocking, but the mirror child chuckled as if truly amused. "I see why my predecessor is fond of you, Valin. Such directness is refreshing. If you must know, I was incubated in the vat the day you and the dragon were taken, and was released a week later." Again, she gestured for him to sit in a simple folding chair with a grace no child should posses.

Cautiously, he sat, feeling his sore muscles protest, the weight of his weariness heavier. He fought not to sag, for his eye not to grow lidded in exhaustion. No doubt having him sit was also a calculated move on her part, an effort to place him on an even level with her, so she didn't seem so small or childish.

"No doubt you have many questions, Seven Valin," she said, and sat behind the rather small, cluttered desk, folding her arms casually over one another. "Ask them."

He studied her features, her round face. Would it become carved of a mountain in time? In fifty? A hundred years? How much longer would this war rage? Until this new Inventrix's death?

"Why are the Rider forces so large?" he ventured.

She chuckled. "Ah, that's a question you want to know, but not the question you want to ask. You've your own curiosity to tame, I can see. Ask your heart-question. I will answer."

Her youth was disarming his natural caution around an Inventrix. "Is your blood the same as theirs? Altered?"

She shook her head. "No. Mirena was wise enough to grow me in the same manner as the First Inventrix. And before you ask, you should know that it's in my blood—that undeniable need to tinker with our own line. To improve it as we try desperately to invent and improve the world itself. Varess was not the first to do so, but perhaps the one who did the most damage to those she grew. As a result of this war, Mirena denied her own need and created me as it was always meant to be—a perfect copy of the First of our line."

"I honestly don't know what that means, Inventrix."

Her easy smile reminded him of Seren's innocent, bright smile. "I can tell you know a great deal about us already. But the Three—Seren, Mirena, and Kirwen—are all facets of what was supposed to be a single Inventrix. Mirena is the center, the one closest to what she was meant to be, the fulcrum for the other two, the one who thrives on logic. Seren is the innocent, joy-finding, emotional, obsessive side of our inventor's nature, the most harmless."

"Was," Valin corrected.     

The girl grimaced, and made a combination of the Nav's flight to the sun gesture, and a finger flutter he didn't recognize. Valin took it to mean a sort of condolence, offered in remorse.

"And Kirwen?" he prompted.

"Ah, you admire her, your very distant grandmere. Don't you? Even as you fear her." When he didn't answer, Valin wondered what she read in his features, even though he kept his expression plain. "Kirwen is the leader, the hunter, the defender, and venerate protector. The She-Wolf, if you will. She's adopted the name as a proud epithet. And it fits well."

Valin's voice lowered, and sounded unforgiving, "Why were they allowed to live? Three mirrors...certainly the Clan would've risen up against such an Abomination."

"Are you so certain that the Cog Clan has enough of their own volition to stand up to their Inventrix, no matter the crime?" The girl sighed, looking sadder than any child had a right to be. "My predecessor refuses to tell me. And unlike the Three, Mirena and I have no virul-microcog link between us. As was set down in the rules, we have not transferred memories from one to the other through blood. Blood memories passed from one Inventrix to another are an Abomination for a reason, though most of our abilities stem from natural blood knowledge inscribed into us from the First. And so, I can only surmise."

Valin's desperate need for knowledge prompted him to blurt, "The Trial."

The young Inventrix's eyes studied him. "This is not a punishment from history I recognize. It must have been one of Varess's cruel tests. On some of those, Mirena revealed to me in order to make me understand what I could never become. How Varess—one of my line, one of me—could've been created to be so...heartless, so brutal...disturbs me. Tell me what you know of this Trial."

His hand throbbed, and so he picked at the bandage, feeling dried blood peel away. "I honestly know nothing of it. Only that it seems to be a final test that broke them apart."

She leaped from her seat and came to stand before him. With a curt gesture, he saw the huge silver coghorse enter, and it pressed its nose to her palm. After a moment of silent communication, the horse turned and cantered away. Her tiny hands touched his bandage, and he protested wordlessly, part of him horrified that their eons old Clan Leader would dare to sully herself with something so simple as tending to his wounds. The other half was fascinated, as he'd been by Kirwen. And Mirena. And even Seren's clever madness.

He stifled any further protest as the child gave him a stern frown.

"I'm also a healer," said the Inventrix, peering beneath the bandage. "Seren was gifted with that blood knowledge out of the Three, and Mirena has told me tales of Seren wandering among the dying on the battlefields to save them...before it became too much."

Valin held his breath.

"I can see why Varess grew Kirwen to posses the ability for bearing children," said the child, unwrapping his bandage with her tiny hands. "The possibilities of what could've been passed through blood is fascinating. I also see why Mirena has been watching your line. It makes me wonder if you have some of our tendencies."

"I'm nothing like you," he said sharply.

A small brow arched, and that seemed uncannily like the Three. Her eyes roamed over the points of his face, searching. "Dear gods, boy...what have they done to you?"

He rose to his feet, towering over her small frame. The vile anger rose to the surface, and he growled, "Kirwen still has my squad...has Zefir. And she'll murder them. And Mirena is no better. You all manipulate. You think you know what's best for so many, but you don't see what you're doing to us. Or you don't care. This war is killing us. It's murdered so many, and dear gods, I had to listen to the Wheelteeth's losses...all of them." He gritted his teeth against the need to shake this tiny being that was no child. "If I could, I'd destroy our vats. What good have you brought us? Only death. But you live beyond it like we're mere insects."

She reached out and clasped gently at his good hand. It was so unexpected that he nearly jerked it from her soft grip. "I know, dear boy. I know."

Words were beyond him. He'd just uttered the foulest of treasons and she was patting his hand like a grandmere soothing his hurts. This child. His Inventrix...new Inventrix.

She looked so resolute, her round, baby-fat cheeks forming frown lines. "We've outlived our usefulness. What once was created for stability, has become stagnation and oppression. Absolute rule. That was never why we were created. But this war needs to end before it grows, before it encompasses other Clans." She looked up into his eyes, and Valin had the strange notion that in this moment she was more of a frightened child than an old being. "We must stop Mirena's final creation. We must stop Kirwen. I will help you, Seven Valin."

He studied her face with the same intensity that she had scrutinized him. And he believed her. Is it because I'm desperate? Because I've nothing else? Or because he didn't want to betray his Clan?

Or worse: it'd been bred into him to obey his Inventrix.

The silver coghorse burst into the tent carrying a med-pack in its teeth. Blinking at her, it closed its eyes and pressed its nose into her chest. Like Zefir used to do. Slowly, she stroked the coghorse's nose until she kissed it with all the innocent sweetness of her youth...or like Seren had kissed Zefir with the same kind of genuine affection.

And he wondered in fear, what this Inventrix child meant by Mirena's last creation.

#

The squad had stopped railing against Zefir and his choice hours ago, and for now he watched memories not his own flickering to life inside his heart-mind. Kirwen must be losing control, otherwise he knew he wouldn't see so much, her barriers to the world crumbling. He didn't want to feel sympathy for the woman who'd proven she was his enemy, who threatened the lives of his squad, and yet, huddled alone in his corner he saw—

Seren had calculated the pitch and thrum of Kirwen's bright laughter whenever they managed to sneak away to the Tamer's caves on the lowest level. At first, they'd watched the alpha female wolf give birth to a new, well-bred litter, the pups three times the size of their smaller brethren. Mirena had only nodded, stating how well the First Tamer had done, for she noted that the endurance of the pups was well beyond their smaller cohorts.

The First Tamer balked at seeing them in the Tamer caves. His pulse increased, and Seren always had to exhale the reek of his fear from her delicate nostrils, eyes swimming from the overpowering stench of it.

The three Abominations were in his domain. Merely children, but all knew that Inventrixes weren't normal children.

Now, the huge pups had grown into a large, strong pack. But they were almost wild, refusing to take direction from their First. Except the Tamer didn't know that they'd bonded to one so very like them.

Kirwen was their First. And they greeted her with wagging tails and wet noses, pleasant yips, and Kirwen's laughter grew in pitch until she...giggled. Seren had tried to replicate the sound herself, but her giggles always sounded forced. Not like her mirror's.

Zefir could hear Ferrei's footsteps growing near, possibly to argue and try to convince him again; distantly he heard her voice.

No, it was a voice from the memory.

"You must destroy them," came Varess's too smooth voice.

"No," Kirwen said with finality. "They're my pack...I love them. And I won't hurt them. They look to me, Varess. And isn't that what we're supposed to do as Inventrixes?"

"You're no Inventrix, Kirwen. I made certain of that." Her craggy features loomed, and Seren had to stifle a wince, sending her mind deep down where Varess couldn't find her with the virul-microcogs. "Kill the blood-ridden wolves, or I'll do it for you. I won't make it quick. And you'll watch every minute."

"What is the point of this, predecessor?" Mirena demanded.  

Zefir heard a voice with his ear, and it echoed the words he heard in his memory, "You must learn what it means to lose them. And to become numb to it year after year. And to know that sometimes, you are the cause of their death."

He blinked and the world came back into focus.

Kirwen stood before him in her flying leathers, her wolf flight mask hanging down from her face. His squad was standing together, Innari behind them, resolute as sentinels. Ferrei opened her mouth to protest once more, but Nyru made the quick gestures for decision made, downslide to land, and his Second silently glared at the Wolf.

Kirwen closed her eyes for a moment.

"Did you?" Zefir asked quietly.

"Yes, child," she whispered. "I killed them quickly. To save them from worse."

He rose to his feet and paced slowly at her side as they left the confines of his prison, leaving behind his squadron...his sibling. An ache sat inside of him, and he knew it mirrored Kirwen's own when she'd—no, he didn't want to see her youthful frame driving the dagger into her wolves. It was the first time she wept. And it scared her to cry.

"Did you learn what Varess wanted you to learn?" Zefir dared.

She walked in her usual brisk manner, but slowed as they ascended toward the flight ledges. "Many years later, but yes, some of her lessons were true. The gift of such a long life doesn't always seem like a gift. You see the same children grow into women and men, and then you see them die. From disease. From injury. From old age itself. In each case you have to let go..."

"But you can't." And he understood. Though he was in his machine-like childhood, he would only grow older in experience, living for generations, seeing the same decay that Kirwen saw. Even if he saved his squad, his Navigator, eventually he would lose them to the worst Wolf of all: time. "What of her lesson was untrue?"

"You don't become numb to it," she said, shaking her head. "Once you think you can, you retreat from them all...the new ones, the babes and children who will grow yet again. But loneliness drives you back to them. It always does. And once again you feel their loss. I still miss my wolves, their yips and wet noses. And I still see their blood on my hands."

They reached the highest ledge, and in the sky he could already see dozens and dozens of ketch-gryphon Wings practicing their feet-clamping maneuvers; those same maneuvers that had given him his first scar, those talons leaving a furrow in his tail. He quivered from the desire to launch himself after them, to leave a trail of them falling from the sky, flaming, searing them...

The Wolf watched her Navs in the sky. "If you think such things again, child, our pact will end. I can't have you reacting to them during battle as if they are the enemy. For now, whether you like it or not, they are your allies, and as such they are your responsibility. These Navigators...are your squadron now."

His wings ached to feel the wind, but he turned his back on the sight of a cool, bright morning and the taste of the air. He arched his neck to her level. "Before we begin I must know."

She knew what he meant. "Your Navigator left his bonds behind, and has fled. Back to your Clan. He's alive."

Relief flooded into him so hard that he had to stifle a joyful cackle. Valin escaped! "You're not lying to me?"

Zefir knew his question had been uttered with all the guileless nature of a hopeful child, but he knew the answer before she said, "I may be a monster, Zefir, but I'm a truthful one. I've never lied to you. I leave the dominion of lies to—to..." Kirwen gritted her teeth as a wave of fury burst through her, her brass hands ticking as if she wanted to strangle anyone in her path.

To Mother.

And he saw a flicker of memory from her—Valin running from the Post. "You...you released him. Why?"

Her eyes were flinty. "We struck a bargain. Very like the one we struck. With the same two at risk."

And now it became clear, and Zefir felt the ache of the same decision as his Navigator had made. Betrayal. Or perhaps Valin wouldn't...

Zefir knew he must try to convince Kirwen of her folly.

"There's another bargain you should consider. We can end this, Kirwen," he said with a different kind of hope. Not a blind childish hope, for he knew anything he said was unlikely to convince her, but his hope lay in trying. "End this war, and all it has caused. Give up on your vengeance. Your endless anger. Ending the war will do more to bring our Clans back together than overpowering one in defeat. We can never be as we once were, but we can try to heal."

She shook her head, the breeze ruffling at her wolf mask, making it swing on her neck. "It's more than just my anger. My vengeance. I'll lose them all if I surrender."

[No, surrender, never surrender. Anger. Fear.]

Zefir wasn't certain which one of them had that thought-emotion.

"It's not surrender if both of you stand down," he said.

She frowned, the lines of her face severe. "I'm close to death. I know and accept that. But what I can't accept is that all our lost children will never find their way home. And the war will wage on without me here, but they'll have forgotten why we fight. As they always do."

He puffed a warm breath at her. "For one so old, you can't think beyond the immediate, Kirwen. If we make peace, the children of the Cog Clan and the children of the Wheelteeth will one day in the future find one another. There will be no more enmity because they'll have forgotten—like you said—why we fought. Their only reality will be peace. And as such, become whole. Give it time. Peace needs time, Kirwen. Even if you can't live to see it grow, to shepherd it, peace will thrive. But it has to begin with you."

She lifted her gloved hand as if she longed to touch him, but she curled her fingers tighter and dropped her arm to her side. "It won't happen that way, child, it never does. I have no choice. My cruelties are because I've been driven to them, to save my Clan and to make it whole again, but I choose such cruelties willingly. I only wish that I could've been something else."

"You can become something else," Zefir insisted. "A peacemaker. An ally. You're not a cruel person, not truly. You derive no joy from threatening, from killing, or from battle."

"You have no idea what I'm capable of, child. Your belief in me is...wonderfully naïve. But don't think I'll spare your Quarethstras out of sentimentality because you're my ward. I can sense how much it...hurts you. And I'm sorry, but you're more important to my Clan as a battle dragon than as my ward."

"Please, Kirwen," he said, stepping toward her. His breath ruffled the hair about her face. "Be what you were truly meant to be. A Leader. Lead your Clan toward safety. Toward peace. You can save them all without any more violence."

She bowed her head, and placed her wolf flight mask over her nose and mouth. "I was bred to fight for those in my keeping. It's my one and only true purpose. And I'll do so until my dying breath. This is the only way."

He should be furious, should spit out hateful words. But even after all the anger and fear she'd caused him, was still causing, he hated to see any being in so much pain.

And for so long, he thought.

But Zefir merely said, "You're holding the dagger, Kirwen. Don't use it like you did all those years ago."

The Wolf stared back at him, her eyes brimming as she placed her goggles over her face. "Time is short. We fly maneuvers today, but in four days, we move out. This ends. One way or another."

As Zefir turned to look to the sky, he knew how it would end.

If there was to be no peace, then it would all end in death.  

Read Part 24: Beyond All Costs

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