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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #24: Beyond All Costs


Zefir could feel the Wing runner's eyes on him as he ducked from beneath another gryphon swipe, and without telling her how, or directing, Kirwen indicated the direction to dive through the Navigator's panel upon his back—and he felt her pure elation in flying with him. [Head whirling. Stomach clenching with the dive. Delight.] He didn't want to admit to himself that he was enjoying this, and he rumbled a chuckle as he turned on a wing, a mere three-points away from the First Leader of the gryph squad practicing with him, and pointed straight downward, his diaphragm-ballonette collapsing partially with the dive.

He could feel the pull of the ground, pushing himself, pulling his wings close. Yearning to get as close as possible before unfurling his wings to arc back upward. He gauged the ground, but he wanted to push it closer. So close. He heard her voice in his chest, no need for a communication device.

Pull up!

He inhaled, wanting to feel his wings brush over the grasses.

Pull up, child! Do as I say!

He spread his wings and his downward plunge was arrested, the air catching his wings until they felt like they would split from his body. And he arced upward in a perfect U, flapping for the next apex until his insides burned like wildfire—damn it, Kirwen, redirect the flow of cooling! The gryph Wing scattered about him as he dove in the center of their line. Well, he'd warned them over and over this afternoon that such a maneuver was a favorite of the Cog Clan's Wing commanders, and if they hadn't learned to either close ranks as they'd practiced, forcing the him to either risk collision or to abort, then it was their own damned fault.

Land! Now! came her thought-voice, strong with fury. And through his three-sixty directional indicator, she pointed to the place to land.

Defiant, he chose the landing ledge they'd launched from instead, and with easy backstrokes, he alighted on the edge, panting because the heat of his systems was overwhelming.

She leaped from his back, and came around to face him. The wolf mask only added to the fury glinting in her eye, and she tore the flight mask from her face, throwing it against the far wall.

Zefir regarded her in silence as he fought for his breath, for the heat to dissipate.

She thrust a trembling finger at him. "You've been disobeying me the entire afternoon. Our pact is finished."

He leaped in front of her, baring his teeth. "No, Kirwen, you've been failing me."

She blinked in surprise. [Fail. Failed my ward. Fail.]

Zefir advanced on her until his large eye, the size of her human head, glared at her from a handspan away. "You keep forgetting that I'm no gryphon. You've been working against me, not with me. My Navigator must..." he swallowed at the idea that Valin might never again fly with him. But his Navigator had escaped. Valin was safe now among their Clan, surely. "You have to anticipate my actions, and act quickly when I change in mid-flight. I've nearly overheated because you haven't been re-directing my cooling systems. You can't seem to trust me enough to know my limits. You won't allow me to maneuver on my own, even when I see a better opening."

"You must obey me," she growled. "For now, I'm your Leader—"

"No," he barked. "For now, you're my Navigator. And you've no idea what that means."

Kirwen stepped back from his looming dragon head, and crossed her arms. Such a defensive posture wasn't her norm, but he thought it a way to hide her tremors. "Then tell me."

He let out a frustrated sigh. "In the air, I must trust and rely on your judgments without hesitation. And equally, you must trust and rely on mine. You're not my Leader, Kirwen, not when flying—flying is different. It's mutual. It's—"

"Connecting," she said with a thoughtful frown. "A give and take. Two beings as one whole."

Now it was his turn to blink in astonishment. How could she understand now? Unless... "Is that what it was like for you and your mirrors?"

Kirwen's bitter smile was beginning to be all too familiar. "Similar. But deeper. I've no doubt Mirena designed you this way on purpose. Probably without realizing it. It was our reality, our deepest self—one in three, three in one. Even now, I miss it like a phantom limb." She barked out a cynical laugh and held up her shaking brass hands.

"Then you understand," Zefir said resolutely. "You must cease trying to control me. You have to trust me, and my instincts. You might think me a mere child, but in the air...that's where I belong. You believe you have your blood purpose, but this is mine."

She shook her head, hands in frustrated fists. "If being your Navigator requires trust, then it will never happen. Not after all I've done to you and yours."

"No, I won't allow you to give up on this." Not if it means losing Ferrei and Jarre. "I can learn to trust you in the air. I need time—"

"Four days is all we have, child." She crossed her arms again, and closed her eyes for a moment to regain control over her shaking hands.

Zefir held his breath, even though his systems were already too hot. He used his snout to nudge her and buried his nose in her chest, listening closely to the sound of her mechanical heart; not like his, which was also his mind, but hers was a machine replacement for the one lost, he was certain of it. She peered at him in confusion, before her shaking hands touched either side of his face. He could feel and hear how fierce the trembles. Not only was her body slowly dying, like a worn out clock winding down, but her mechanical parts were also following into decay, connected as they were to her flesh.

"This won't make you trust me, child." Kirwen met his round eye unwaveringly. "You're more like me than you'd like to admit. I threatened yours. Those Quarethstras are yours."

"Because I love them."

"So, you understand then." She looked away. "The pain. The fear. The need to protect them at all costs. It's the terrible burden of love, Zefir."

She'd called him by his heart-name, and not child.

Zefir exhaled slowly. "I do. That's what you believe you're doing for your Clan. For your children's children. But you're tearing them apart, Kirwen. You're giving them pain and fear. And it won't stop until you end this war."

She turned her back on him for a moment, tremors passing through her frame. "We must continue as is. If you can't trust me, then you must obey me." Kirwen turned to regard him, expression unyielding. "Without question."

"I may not trust you fully, but I can come to understand you." She backed away from him, but his wing unfolded to keep her from stumbling, and she used the pseudo-metallic membrane of his wing to steady her quivering legs. "Tell me everything. Tell me how you were wounded in spirit and in flesh. Tell me of the Trial."

He could feel her fear along the place where her hands touched him, their virul-connection thrumming to vibrant life.

"If you can't speak of it, then show me," Zefir said intently.

He knew—he could feel the certainty in his sternum—that if he touched her mind, he would see everything. Even without her permission. Like her body, her mind was crumbling. Her anger was a hot fire in his belly, hotter than his poorly cooled pseudo-flesh, and he longed to push into the forefront of her thoughts. With a great power of will, he restrained himself, knowing it would be the basest of violations.

Kirwen clenched her teeth, and cold sweat poured down the side of her face. "She knew...she knew I'd need you. Seren didn't give her virul-cogs to you just to cleanse you of your false memories. She did it for me too. Damn you, lissteri. And curse me for mourning you still."

Lissteri...

Zefir heard three voices, all children with identical faces, uttering it to one another.

She gasped, "It will hurt."

And Zefir wasn't certain if she meant for him, or for herself. He curled his wings about her, this desperate human that had weathered centuries. This angry, bitter creature, this Leader that would dare to kill two of his squad to save the lives of many more, to manipulate and threaten him, who belonged to her—and he could feel the pain of that decision.

Kirwen let out a strained breath and released her hold on her memories.

#

Valin was saddle sore. Not something he ever thought he'd be, not as a second-level tech, and not as a Nav. But though his coghorse moved with a strangely smooth gait, the saddle—and the Tenth Rider Regiment had chuckled at his need for one—gods bedamned but it chaffed.

The Inventrix child rode easily on the back of the monstrous silver coghorse as if born to it, and Valin listened as the beast spoke to her, its voice a deep basso not unlike Jarre's rumble, though he couldn't make out the words. But the silver coghorse easily rode ahead of the scouts, much to Rhin's constant irritation and concern. It was clear the Tenth Regiment thought of themselves as the new Inventrix's personal guards, and every time the Inventrix child would disappear ahead for an hour or so, four or five Riders would canter off after her.

They often looked shamefaced when they returned at her side, and Valin didn't know if it was because the Inventrix had chastised them for thinking her a child, or because they felt they had failed in their blood duty somehow.

Now they were cresting the top of a small canyon, and Valin groaned when his coghorse picked up the pace to remain a calculated distance from its mechanical brethren. Tired enough from riding, he nudged his coghorse to a halt, and dismounted.

He looked into the depths of the granite canyon, and saw it...

Mirena's last creation.

It was the most massive thing that Valin had ever seen; his mind calculated the length and breadth of the bomber dragon—with fixated wings!—and knew that it would be ten times the size of Zefir. It seemed almost cobbled together, and strangely inelegant, as he could see the huge rivets in its side like a Healer's stitching of a gaping wound. It had a blunt nose and virtually no head to speak of, and no feet, but massive wheels instead—also made of stretchable pseudo-metal. Its belly was open and Riders and their coghorses pulled a huge cart carrying a—

Bomb. A massive firebomb. Like the three-chambered one he'd built, but larger. It bore hundreds of nozzles all along its side—to spray its contents into the air, a veritable massive blanket of chemicals, before ignition.

The sky would burn like hellsfire.

"Holy metal an' Forge," he gasped.

The silver coghorse came to his side, and the child Inventrix looked down at him from its back.  

"It can't...she can't..." His eyes burned and his sight blurred, his teeth clenching so hard he thought his jaw would snap from the pressure. "Dear gods...all of them? They'll burn." He met those dark eyes that were a match for Mirena's. For Kirwen's. "The children...young ones...the Elders and helpless. She can't do this. How could she build this?"

"Desperation," said the child Inventrix.

"Fuck her desperation," snarled Valin. "She's going to murder them! The innocents. I've been there, Inventrix, and the Wheelteeth are just as desperate as we are. But there are still innocents among them..." Little Mayra. Gods, the bomb would...

The Inventrix nodded solemnly, wiping at her eyes with the backs of her sleeve very like the child she appeared. "She won't listen to reason from me. I believe she's already beyond it, her mind fraying enough to where only her end goal matters—protecting the Clan at all costs." The bright silver coghorse turned his head about to touch his nose to her leg. A comforting gesture.

"But this is far beyond all costs," Valin croaked.

The silver coghorse met Valin's eye, and he could see the intelligence behind it. Like Zefir. That basso voice rumbled, "Shiran hopes that you can reach some part of Mirena that she cannot herself."

Valin glared at the Inventrix. "That's your hopeful plan? That a mere second-level techworker can convince an Inventrix of her madness?"

The child nodded to the coghorse, who knelt his front legs enough to where Shiran could dismount with a graceful little hop. She peered up at him, her round face creased in pain. "No, Valin, that isn't fully my plan. But in order for my plan to work, someone must be able to reach her. She thinks of herself as your mentor. It's my hope that you can convince her that there's an alternative to her obsessive conclusions."

He shook his head at the folly of that idea. "I'm no more than an interesting experiment to her. She's watched my bloodline for signs of Inventrix-like capabilities, and when I revealed higher-level tech capabilities, it peaked her interest. She tried to improve me the way she did all of her other inventions. It isn't an emotional bond."

"If you say so, Valin," said the Inventrix sadly. "But if you don't try, we've already lost."

He glared down at the diminutive version of the Three. "You're our Inventix too. The people will listen to you if you counter her orders."

Shiran raised her brow, her frown one of a disappointed teacher. How often Mirena and Kirwen had given him that look when he hadn't come to a conclusion fast enough for their liking. "You know the law. Inventrixes may only de-vat their successor close to the end, and while there are two, only the elder one is the Leader."

"But if you try, some will follow you. Enough to stop this madness. At the very least the Tenth Regiment."  

Her lips curled in disgust. "And begin a new war that will divide our Clan further? Don't you think I've considered that?"     

...divide our Clan further...

Like the Three had done, this little child had led him to his own realization, rather than telling him directly. "There's more to our past with the Wheelteeth than just Mirena forcing them to give her their children during the famine times. Isn't there?" That last was nearly a statement and not a question.

"So I've surmised as well, Seven Valin," said Shiran, staring out into the canyon with haunted eyes. "Though it's been struck from the records of our Clan. Hopefully, in her final decay, Mirena will tell you as she would not tell me. In a way she finds me repulsive, and has set me out here among the Riders to take me as far away as possible. You Valin, are my hope to reach her, to get her to reveal the past, to make her choose a less harmful alternative."

Exhausted, he slumped to the ground, and sat on the ledge, unable to get back up. He trembled, closing his eyes. Betrayal. So much betrayal. Even Mirena is betraying us all by building this monster. But he forced himself to open his eyes once more.

Even sitting his head was on level with Shiran's eyes, and she watched him before she placed a warm hand on his shoulder and squeezed.

She sighed. "I wish this were something I wouldn't have to burden you with, Valin. I would put myself in your place if I were able. It hurts me to think on all you must've been through, and yet you must still do more."

He stared down at the monstrosity in the canyon. "Tell me of your plan, Inventrix."

Shiran nodded, half to herself, eyes distant for a moment before they sharpened. "You must convince her that Kirwen sent you here in order to challenge her to a duel—"

The horrible laughter was out before he could stop himself. "Even with Mirena in decay, no one can beat an Inventrix's reflexes. I'd be dead in the duel before—"

"I wasn't finished, dear boy. The duel challenge isn't from you. It's from Kirwen. Your message from Kirwen is that the two mirrors must duel, one on one. The one who loses, surrenders their Clan. The fight will be until death. Neither one of them would fight for stakes less than that."

"Their duel would stop the oncoming battle," he said.

"Only for a time," she said, using his shoulder as if to keep her upright. "But hopefully, enough time."

She was right. Kirwen would know the Elders of the Wheelteeth wouldn't agree to surrender their entire Clan on a single duel, but a duel would grant the Wheelteeth enough time to evacuate some of the young ones, wounded, and old ones from the mountain. And his Clan—no, I can't be of a Clan that would help Mirena use this firebomb to murder so many innocents. The Cog Clan would follow Mirena's directions as a matter of blood pride. But would they surrender as a whole if she so ordered it? Would it create a war between themselves—those who would follow their blood duty into surrender, or those who would refuse to end their centuries long hatred?

Valin pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes, before he managed to still the tides of gut-clenching fear pressing into him, making the bile rise in his throat until he swallowed it back down, swallowed everything back down: his pride, the fear, the anger and yes, even hatred. He had to bury it, and bury it well if he were to convince Mirena this falsehood was truth.

And then, he would need to abandon the Cog Clan once again to give Kirwen the same offer. To warn her of the firebomb...

As a child, Valin had believed in the Gods of the Forge, and had dutifully prayed to them with a boy's eagerness. It was said that the Leader of the Forge Gods would pound out metal as She pounded out fear within a tech's breast—with a hammer and anvil, twisting the metal-fear until it became something else, something altered, new, and beautiful. But first, the fear had to be thrust into the heart of the fire, into the Forge itself to glow red-hot. Pain. I'd always thought of the Forge itself as pain. The crucible, as it was known.

Here was his.

Shiran didn't prompt him, but sat at his side, short legs dangling over the ledge.

He croaked, "If Mirena dies before the final battle..."

"She won't," said the child. 

"But if she did," Valin said firmly. "Would you end this war, Shiran?"

"Ending a war is not the same as peace." She continued to stare down at the Riders urging their coghorses to pull the firebomb into the bomber dragon's belly. "If Mirena dies before the offer of a duel, Kirwen still has reason to attack. Even if I call off the damnable firebomb. I'm not certain if Kirwen would trust me enough to even negotiate with me. And her terms will likely be unreasonable."

"So, you have a logical answer to everything without actually answering the question. Just like the Three."

She clasped her small hands together in her lap. "Such bitterness I hear. But not only from you, Valin. From those very Riders—" and she began to point into the canyon, but dropped her hand wearily back into her lap, "—who know what the bomb is capable of. Though not all of them think the firebomb is a travesty. I've heard some of them cheer it like some avatar of justice. And I've heard the same from the Navigators who will fly to protect it."

Valin couldn't look at it any longer. He rose to his feet, turning for his coghorse.

She still stared down into the canyon. "No, Daimo will take you. He's faster and more sure-footed."

Valin met the horse's gaze and the silver creature nodded its head, almost a bow. "She built you, your young Inventrix. Do you call her Mother?"

"No, Valin," said the coghorse. "I call her Rider. As I will call you when you ride."

"What's your purpose, great horse?"

Daimo released a sound somewhere between a snort and a horse-like chuckle. "All of you are so certain everything must have a purpose built into them. My purpose is whatever I deem it to be. Now or centuries from now. It's my choice. And I haven't decided yet."

Valin placed out his good hand and the coghorse bumped it with his soft nose. "You're very wise for a child."

The dark obsidian eyes glinted. "So I've been told. Sometimes I think being new, or being young just means that you know you don't know everything. And so you sound wise."

"That sounds like wisdom to me," Valin said.

Daimo chuffed at that. "Ready to go? I'm good with inexperienced riders. I won't let you fall off. Promise."

"That's a promise I'll hold you to." Valin looked at the canyon wall and the way down. "I'd much rather fly."

"Then I'll make certain to jump as high as I can on the way down," said the horse with a distressing amount of sincerity.

Daimo knelt down to allow him to mount up. Inelegantly, and with a great amount of puffing and squiggling to sling his legs over properly, he finally sat atop the coghorse. Valin grasped desperately on to Daimo's glinting silver mane, clenching his legs around the barrel of the horse's side until Valin's muscles trembled with the effort.

Then the coghorse launched himself over the ledge with a pleased whinny.

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