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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #25: Trials of the Past


Zefir clutched tighter to Kirwen as his own legs gave out beneath him, his wings shuddering with the force of her memories—so clear, as if he were living them from his own eye, even stronger than Seren's thoughts; they raged through his heart-mind, which he feared would burst from the overwhelming might; it buzzed and hummed as if ready to fly apart at the seams.

The sense of his body faded, his own thoughts were too distant. He didn't know if he would be able to return, or if he'd remember who he was...

#

Kirwen stared at the man on his knees, head bowed. But she could see the glint in his eye, the grimace on his lean face. The Tamer Ulri met her gaze once, before lowering it like a wolf overshadowed by his alpha, hunching to become small.

Varess stood in her high-collared black on black uniform, the one she wore when she was forced stand in final judgment; she placed on the blank mask, the one that represented all of the Gods and Goddesses, speaking with the voice that conveyed the power of all the deities. The Tamer sat in the center of the sigils etched into the stone floor—the hammer of the Forge Gods, the Palm of the Five Healers, and the sundisk.

Seren flinched beside Kirwen, and her mirror reached out her hand and clasped desperately at Kirwen's fingers; on her other side, Mirena hesitated before she too entwined her hand with Seren's.

Lissteri, Seren thought-spoke.  

Kirwen stifled any outward sign of panic, and squeezed hard at her mirror's hand.  Keep silent.

We can't let this go on, Seren insisted, the pulse of her pain sizzled through their fingertips. What if it's real?

Mirena met their eye, face expressionless, even while Kirwen could feel her attempting to tame her own panic through Inventrix-breathing exercises. Enough. Whether it's a real test or a false memory, the outcome is out of our hands.

"This man has broken the Law," said Varess. "He has stolen the life of one of our Clan. He has killed his blood-mother. Now, we stand in judgment."

Ulri raised his hands, grasping at Varess's black coat. "P-Please, Inventrix. Please, you must understand. My blood-mother has been in agony for so long...the wasting disease. She tried to hide it, our blood tried to help her, but it became too much for her. Pain was her whole world, and I promised her I would help her end it."

Varess turned to the Three, unholstered the Navigator aeropistol on her hip, and held it out to them. "One of you. Choose his fate."

Kirwen shuddered. Another bedamned test. It can't be real.

Stand firm, lissteri, Mirena insisted to both of them. This one might indeed be real. I will draw her attention. Stay quiet.

"You, One," said Varess pointing an unerring finger, "choose."

Mirena stepped forward, but clasped her hands behind her back, chin raised. "An Inventrix must be the Law, write the Law, and uphold the Law. The fact that his blood-mother had the wasting disease means that you meddled in their blood, testing new abilities without thought to the side effects. Therefore, it's your fault."

Varess's eyes were chips of flint behind the mask. "Fault is not the issue here. He has admitted to murder of one of the Clan, to one of his own blood, and must pay for his crime. Choose his punishment." She pointed her free hand at Seren. "Choose his fate, Two."

Seren swallowed. "Well, you see, no. No, no. He isn't guilty. It was mercy, what he did. An Inventrix must see the right of things. And what he did was out of love and compassion. He ended her suffering. There is no punishment."

"Wrong," snarled their predecessor. "Murder is murder, no matter the motive. By the Law, he will either be shot dead, or made to stand on the Exile Post. You've failed, Two. Like you so often do." She held out the pistol, leather grip outward. Then came their predecessor's thought-voice, that sharp stab of cold-calculation-pain. Shoot him, Two, or send him to the Posts. And if you fail to do either, I send you back to the vat to dissolve so I can reuse the protein of your flesh for a better mirror.

Seren trembled, and Kirwen could feel the shared sensation of her mirror's eyes burning; Seren didn't know how to weep, and the feeling always pained her. "It's a trick, predecessor, another clever trick. If I shoot him, then I'm guilty of the same crime for which the Tamer is accused."

"You almost died there, Two."

Kirwen marched forward, not bothering to stifle the black hatred in her breast. Let Varess sense it through their virul-connection, let her know that Kirwen felt her presence like a vile slithering creature in her mind.

"Your verdict, Three?" asked their predecessor.

Kirwen had less control over her body than her mirrors, and so she couldn't stop shaking in anger. "You won't spare him, even if this trial is real. Ulri is guilty of his crime, because I gave him the cure to ease his blood-mother's suffering. A tincture, Varess, the gentle death-sleep draught straight from your lab. No doubt you noticed the ingredients missing in varying amounts." She glared at her predecessor. "I helped him, because you wouldn't."

Mirena quivered. Don't do this, Wen. Not for us. Don't take the blame for all Three.

We helped you, Seren thought-sent. Seren had always been the one powerful enough mentally to shelter them from Varess's probing mind, but only for a time. She spoke knowing full well Varess would hear.

Varess nodded, tearing off her mask; there beneath was the same cold façade, those dark glinting eyes that Kirwen knew they would gain as they aged in a century. "The Law states—"

"Fuck your Law to the ten hells, Varess," Kirwen snarled. "You aren't our Inventrix, you've become our vile goddess. You're choking the life from my Clan. Meddling in their blood to strengthen them, but not for them. For you and your blood-ridden aims. Or simply because you can. Your control, Leader, is absolute and no one will stand up to you. Your effort to alter Ulri's bloodline ended in the wasting disease, but did you try to help them? Or did you let a generation of them die slowly and in agony until the ones who didn't carry the disease in their blood could procreate?"

"Well, said, Three." Varess raised a cool brow. "Still ever the violent protector, even if it means killing your own. Your anger is what makes you weak, not strong like you believe. You, Three, are the monster of all the mirrors, and you know it to be true."

"You taught me that, Varess." Kirwen stared at the pistol in her predecessor's hand. If she could only move as fast as a true Inventrix she could end this. Take the pistol. And she wasn't certain if it was her own thought, or Varess's taunt. "You taught me with every nightmare you've sent me, sent us. With every false memory. With every test that forced blood on my hands."

Varess gestured to Ulri, who trembled, tears staining his cheek. "Decide."

She could feel the connection between her mirrors strengthen, until all three of them spoke in perfect tandem, "We already have."

Ulri's eyes closed and he slowly slumped to the floor; after a minute of complete silence, the Tamer stopped breathing—Kirwen could hear his last sigh, hear the last thump of his heart. Seren's eyes burned again, and it was Mirena who tried to comfort her, placing that ever steady hand on her lissteri's shoulder.

"Clever," said Varess, unsurprised.

Seren shook her head in denial. "He begged us to end it before the pain began. It had already started. We gave him mercy. I want it to be untrue, a false memory—"

"Oh, Two. You're the one who will always be but a sweet, wondering child. Are you so certain?" Varess placed the mask back on, standing above the sigils of the gods as if she belonged among them. "Or is this the beginning of the trial?"

Confusion. It comingled in their minds.

"Not the Tamer's trial," said Varess, "but your own. There can be only one successor, as I've told you again and again. Your Trial. It begins now. And at the end, you must chose who it is who will live. For if you don't chose a successor, I'll end all three of you and begin anew."  

And their sight blurred—it was real!—before they found themselves, somehow, in the heart of the forge caves. No techworkers worked, and the crucibles were too hot, bubbling over.

So, this was to be the arena of their fight for life.

Their fear became one fear, an overwhelming pit in the center of their combined being—

#

Zefir slowly became aware that Kirwen was writhing in his grip, breathing out denials in a steady stream. Still, he cradled her with a wing as she buried her face in the brass membranes, stifling a scream.

"I should've killed her, should've tried," she breathed. "Dear gods why aren't I stronger? Take the pistol...end it all."

Those words echoed in Zefir's thoughts in the form of a memory. He cradled her closer, looking about him for signs that Varess might come for her, that familiar-yet-not familiar face carved of cruel lines, which loomed like a specter in his mind. It was in the past. The distant past. "She would've kill you if you tried."

Kirwen's laughter was somewhere between a sob and a scream, the sound grating. Her eyes fixated on a point far from Zefir's face. "You're wrong, Mirena. And you know it. The pistol was a test. I showed her that I was weak by failing to grab for it. I can taste her amusement, godsdamn her."

Zefir struggled to keep his mind separate, but he could almost see the younger version of his Mother, see her shake her head in denial. Mirena grabbed her—his?—hand, squeezing hard, her hand slick with sweat from the heat of the forge caves.

This was a mistake. Her memories were devouring them both. "Kirwen...stop."

He forced his body to move, and the pain of his joints, unmoving for how long—where was the sun?—riveting him to the present. He lifted her and waddled on three legs toward the back of the ledge.

And the next memory took him so fiercely that he stumbled to the stone floor, hoping he didn't crush her as—

#

"It's real, real, it's real," Seren said, a mantra of fear which rattled around inside of Kirwen's bones. "But...the forge caves would never be deserted completely."

Mirena was still peering about her, that familiar steely frown indicating she was calculating the differences from memory—recalling her memories in perfect syncopation with what she saw. "They would be if Varess ordered the techs to leave the crucibles untended. Two have cracked already, and the flow molten metal is blocking the exit. It will remain hot for several days, and if we don't find a way out, we'll die of thirst."

Kirwen gestured upward. "The upper walkways are clear."

"But too hot," Mirena said with her ever clear voice. It never wavered in panic, not even when the emotion seized her with as much might as it did Kirwen.

Seren's eyes glazed as she too entered the realm of pure calculation. "The air dances with heat...the walkways are hot enough to burn through our boots in three minutes, and after that they would cause second to third degree burns. We can't escape...and it's real, it's real this time. No, no, no—"

Kirwen touched her mirror's cheek. "We can escape. And we will. All three of us."

Bitterness. Always Mirena's bitterness was the one emotion obvious in her voice. "You heard what she said. Only one will survive and we must choose which one. You could sense her...disgusting eagerness. She's done testing us individually. Even if this is a false memory, she's waiting for one of us to be the clear victor."

"We won't give it to her, Mir," Kirwen said sharply.

She gestured to her mirror, and slowly Mirena came to her; they clasped hands, sharing their strength between one another—Mirena with her logic [half an hour before the room grows too hot to breathe], Seren for her cleverness [calculate the rate of the crucible's decay], and Kirwen for—

I'm no Inventrix, she thought, shielding her inner voice from her mirrors. If I end myself here, be it real or not, then maybe she'll let Mir and Ser go. Varess has called me the weak one, the monster, and she's made me that.

It also meant that Varess expected her to fail.

—and Kirwen for the sheer force of her will [we will survive together even if we have to battle our way through the ten hells]. Her body stopped quaking in anger and fear, and she found that even though the air was cloudy with smoke, she could breathe easier. As long as they were three into one, one into three, then Varess couldn't break them.

Seren pointed at the nearest crucible, the crack in its side widening. "If we stay on the ground floor, we'll be inundated with liquid metal before long. We have to try the walkway. If we use our speed, we can sprint across it to the upper level door."   

"Which is no doubt locked," said Mirena.

Seren's mouth firmed, and she tightened her grip on their hands. "Then I must unlock it in under three minutes or we burn."

Mirena shook her head, gritting her teeth. "Or we declare a victor here. This illusion ends. And when we are back in the judge's chamber, we end Varess. With our bare hands if necessary."

Kirwen grasped her mirror's arm. "No. If we declare a victor, even if this isn't real, she'll keep the other two in this illusion and then kill us. It isn't worth it the chance, Mir. It's not. We have to stand firm. Together as three. She can't destroy us if we're one."

Mirena's cold façade cracked into lines of fear. "If we don't do this now, she'll continue to destroy us. I-I can't handle the testing any longer, Wen. It's breaking me. You can feel the cracks inside of me. Inside all of us. There are so many false memories...I'm not certain what's real anymore." She curled her hands into fists, her fingernails digging into her palm so fiercely that it drew half-moon pools of blood. "Sometimes I have the horrible thought that you're all an illusion to test me, like you and Ser aren't real. You're the only bedamned thing in this world I care about, and it's like she wants me to think she created you as another test."

Seren grasped Mirena's face, staring into her eyes. And their Two smiled, holding tighter, and kissed Mirena's forehead as she'd once gently kissed the noses of the wolves Kirwen called her pack. "You remember what lissteri means, Mir?"

Mirena choked back a sound; her face became that blank mask as she regained her calm center and nodded. "An equation."

"The only equation," said Kirwen firmly, "that matters, lissteri."

"We love you, Mirena," Seren said, her gentle face aglow.

"Remember that, Mir," Kirwen said with the force of both her words, and her thought-voice. "We'll be safe as three together. Because we're one and three and love one another."

"Yes," her mirror, her One croaked. "I love you too. We'll be safe as three together..."

Kirwen heard Seren humming the song she'd written when they were merely four-year-olds in body. A song that would soothe when one of them had a nightmare, a song that described their bond:

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

"Go," said Mirena, lightly shoving Seren. "To the walkway. There's no more time."

They sprinted with their inborn speed, and Seren jogged up the first flight of metal steps, hissing at the heat; Kirwen followed, feeling the heat of the metal already searing through her leather boots, and she turned to make certain Mirena was behind her...

Mirena paused at the bottom to pick up a heavy, yet slender pipe, its end broken off into a tapered point. She raced up the stairs as Kirwen turned to sprint to the walkway, hearing Mir's thought-voice: We might be able to pry open the door with this.

Seren reached the walkway first and she cried out as smoke curled from her boots, and the crucible below burst, spilling its molten liquid out beneath them. The heat increased until Kirwen could feel her own feet burning—don't think of the burns—and she felt the walkway shudder. Did Mirena stumble behind her? She began to turn around to catch her mirror, only to hear Seren scream, "Mirena! No!"

The pain burst through her neck, a pain unlike any she'd known before, and she heard the crack...of vertebrae? Bone? She fell to the walkway, her back making contact with the white-hot walkway. Her flesh was flayed in an inferno, and she stared up in disbelief at her One staring down at her without expression. Kirwen lifted her hands, desperate to climb back to her feet, but Mirena hefted the pipe once more, and brought it down twice in precise strokes. Kirwen screamed; her hands were no more than broken twigs.

Kirwen was weeping her clear tears. From the pain, the horrible pain inside. "Why?"

Seren was screaming wordlessly.

Mirena's eyes were blank. Dead. As if leeched of everything that made her strong. "To save you. It's the only way to end the illusion. And then I can kill Varess and free us from her virul-control."

"It's real!" Kirwen's voice was nearly gone, her Inventrix-like body already forcing itself to heal, but the damage was too extensive. "Real!"

"That's what you both say," cried her center, her mirror and One. "Every time I see you die in my nightmares. She gives those to me every night."

Mirena hefted the pipe, aiming the sharp point downward. Kirwen watched in disbelief as the metal speared in between her ribs, cracking them; a hit calculated to perfection. The tip of the metal buried in the flesh of her heart. The world stilled. Then there was only agony. Her Inventrix-like body was desperately trying to repair itself with uncanny speed, keeping her heart beating, stopping the flow of blood around the pipe.

The metal slid from that most delicate organ.

Seren ran forward, and grabbed Kirwen beneath the arm, dragging her useless body across the walkway as Mirena advanced on their Two. "Why, Mirena? Why?"

"I'll make it quick, Ser," Mirena said without inflection. "The illusion will end, and I'll save you."

"It's real, real…gods it's real, Mirena, it's real." Seren dragged Kirwen to the platform near the door—their escape.

"I'll be the clear victor of the Trial," said their One, her eyes distant. "I'll save you."

She lifted the pipe toward Seren's skull.

Kirwen didn't know where she had the strength, but somehow she lifted her broken hands to ward the blow from her Two. What bone remained intact shattered from the blow, and she didn't even have the breath to scream; the world was growing dark, agony following her.

Seren's blood tears fell on Kirwen's cheek as she looked up—

The door was opening and Varess stood there, wearing the same judge's regalia, holding the porcelain death mask in her hand. "You've won the Trial, One. Congratulations."

"End the illusion!" Mirena screamed, the muscles on the side of her face standing out.

Varess spread her hands. "Would that I could, One. But you surmised incorrectly. This is real."

Kirwen could feel the admixture of horror and untamed rage soaring through Mirena in a way their One had never felt. Mirena almost dropped the pipe, her mouth open and gaping, grasping for words to deny what her mind was already recalculating: the smoke curling from Varess's own boots, the smell of their predecessor's sweat, the beads forming on her upper lip—

A bellow escaped from Mirena's mouth and she moved with a speed unknown to any of them before. Varess tried to dodge, a smug half-smile on her face, but Mirena's body was younger, quicker. Like lightning. She moved with the storm of rage unfelt before, and it crackled through all Three. The sharp end of the pipe buried through Varess's dark eye—their eye—and Mirena pushed, using her momentum to shove the pipe deep into Varess's brain.

Mirena kicked Varess's legs from beneath her. Their predecessor fell over the side of the walkway, tumbling into the molten heart of the forge.

Seren dragged Kirwen through the open door, and the burning stopped. The edges of her sight grew darker, so when Mirena appeared over her, she had no will and no strength to defend herself. But her One was weeping, not sobs, but a silent and steady stream of blood tears.

All three cried out as their bond shattered. Kirwen moaned at the lash of losing what made them whole. She could still distantly sense them, but it wasn't the same. They weren't inside her, being her, and her being them; their distinct yet sameness was gone. An all too faint sense of them remained, like a phantom limb; Seren's brightness was the strongest, but even that indefinite connection was now painful—it seared into her mind with more agony than her rent heart.

You lied to me, Kirwen managed to send to Mirena. We would've been safe as three. You said you loved me, loved us. But you lied. Now we're broken.

And with that darkness took her.

#

Zefir was released from her memory, his insides feeling hollow. Kirwen was still in his arms, but she wasn't moving; he listened closely to the beat of her mechanical heart, and it still continued on with its inevitable cadence. But her eyes were lost, still far in the past.

[Betrayal. Broken. Lost.]

"Wen?" Zefir whispered, the mirror's nickname slipping naturally passed his lips.

She blinked, and moved like the stone mountain bore down on her. "Please...don't call me that."

Seren had given them their heart-names. Of that Zefir was certain with the uncanny knowledge he'd gleaned through their connection. Varess had only ever called them One, Two and Three, but Seren had named them all based on the Inventrix-language; he knew now what each name meant even if he didn't understand the language-equation behind it, just as lissteri meant a never ending connection.

He closed his eyes, trying to expel the afterimage of Mother's youthful face creased in horror on realizing what she'd done. "And you've never been able to forgive her. Even after all this time."

Kirwen slowly rose to her feet, her neck twitching—the replacement vertebral-bone out of alignment. "She shattered everything we were."

"Out of fear," said Zefir, craning his neck down. "To save you."

Kirwen shook her head wearily. "Those are not her only crimes against me. She was supposed to be our center, our One, and she became something else. The breaking twisted her. The loss of that intimate connection...without us her fear drove her more than any other emotion, and she became..."

Like Varess, came the thought-voice.

Zefir released a disbelieving growl deep enough to rattle the stone. "Mother is nothing like your predecessor."

Kirwen arched a brow, but appeared too tired to keep it raised. "I won't let you see those memories, Zefir, because you love her still. But she continued our predecessor's legacy when she took on the mantle of Inventrix of the Cog Clan. It was all we knew, it was the way we were taught. In a way, no one can blame her for becoming the only thing she understood—how to be a monster."

He stepped toward her, and before she could march away, he enfolded both of them with his aching wings. In the enclosure of his wings, she turned to meet his eye.

"There are some things, Zefir, that can never be repaired."

"I refuse to believe that," he said.

Kirwen smiled sadly. "Yes, I see that, child."

I'm child again now.

She touched his cooling-wire veins in interest, similar to the way Seren had run her fingers along them with pure joy and fascination. "The day is done, dragon. Come. I'll take you back to your squadron. And in the morning, we'll fly again."

"Stay here with me."

She paused, her mind yearning to search his for answers, but she refrained.

"You're exhausted," he said, resettling his wings along his back. "Whenever a nightmare comes for you, I'll give you one of my good memories, and it will recede."

She placed her shaking hand to her forehead, and as she forced her recalcitrant body to obey her the tremors ceased.

"You don't always have to be alone, Kirwen," he said softly. "I can at least give you a night free of nightmares."

"This won't make me release your squad—"

"I know. I'm not bargaining. I do this for you and for no one else."

Kirwen searched his dragon face in stunned disbelief. "Good gods, how did she make you to be...be like this?"

"I made me to be like this."

She considered him in silence for so long he was certain she would simply walk away.

"I'll stay, little one," she said. "But I won't sleep."

Little one was what Mother called him. In this moment she looked so much like Mother that he couldn't help but release a sad keening sound. He wanted to be with her as even now he was with her mirror.

And so she sat, legs dangling over the side of the flight ledge as he lay down next to her, feeling the coldness of the mountain rock seeping into his brass skin. He could feel her battling with her exhaustion, using the fire of her will to remain awake. But soon, Zefir found himself humming the song Seren sang for him, the lullaby for the Three. And in minutes Kirwen fell asleep, leaning against him.

Read Part 26: The Judge's Regalia

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