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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #27: To the End of the March


Qinethi Rhin wouldn't meet Valin's eye, but standing next to her Inventrix, the Rider's gaze would flicker up momentarily, rest on the X on his cheek, and then quickly lower again. Especially, if she thought he was looking. The numbness of his cheek matched the numbness that was spreading inside, that faintly hollow sense that sat in his chest.

Shiran's small fingers had already placed the thread deftly on the needle. And as he sat on the camp chair in her tent, her eye on level with his, she worked to spread the numbing salve on his face. All he wanted to do was sleep. For eternity. Just...sleep away everything.

She reached for the cut on his cheek, but he brought up his bleeding hand and waved her from her work. She studied him, frowning. "Let me stitch it, Valin."

"I don't want it to heal," he said, voice vacant.

"It will heal," she said softly. "As all things do. It simply won't heal as well."

He gave her a wry smirk. "Such wisdom, Inventrix. But let it be. I want the reminder of what I did to be ugly."

Rhin fidgeted on her feet, her soft leather boots scuffing at the dirt. "There are some of us who think...no, I won't speak in generalities to protect my standing. I think that questioning our Inventrix is—"

"A blood-shame?" he sneered. "I'd do it again if given the choice. The hellsfire she would've unleashed, still might unleash, is wrong. And she couldn't see that. She's blind. Just as you are. All of you, never questioning, just believing what it is in your blood to do—"

"You didn't let me finish." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Perhaps it's in your blood to interrupt, but I'll have you know, Seven, that not all of us think that destroying the innocents of the Wheelteeth is right or just. I've been told by some that I'm young and naïve, that if I'd fought at all as long and hard as the old Riders, I'd think differently. That I'd cheer their fiery end." She frowned. "Some of the Firsts of the other Regiments dared to question my loyalties...but, I wish that I'd had the strength to confront her as you did."

He regarded her, his mind threatening to do more than sit idly in numbness. "You're aware, First Leader, that I did more than trade words with her?"

The young Rider dropped her gaze, her lips pressed together in a thin line.

He rose to his feet, and strode toward her, this young girl who might die on the field for the coming battle. "I held the dagger over her heart and I tried to end her life. Would you have done the same, Rider?"

She remained silent. Unmoving. After long breaths of time, she whispered, "No."

"And yet, how many Wheelteeth scouts have you taken down with your arrows?" Gods, she was so young, though he could tell not completely naïve or innocent. "How many did you watch crash? How many did you kill?"

She met his gaze with a defiant glare. "I've lost count, Navigator Valin."

He could tell now that Rhin was weary, and by the haunted gleam in her eye, perhaps had been scarred already. Perhaps her own shadowfall. Through the numbness stirred the faintest sense of guilt, and he stepped away from her, automatically giving her the Navigator signs for apologies, fault is mine.

"I'm sorry, Rhin," he said, and backed away to plop heavily down on the camp chair. 

She flexed her shoulders in a way that suggested she was used to doing so on horseback to check that her cam-and-pulley bow was still in its holster across her back; the movement made him aware of how deadly she truly was, despite her age and lack of experience. He counted the arrows in the quiver at her hip—around thirty—and he wondered how many of them were small firebomb tips.

She met his eye, and jutted her chin in the direction of his cheek. "A Rider, or a Nav, does what they think best for the safety of the Clan. In that moment, you fought for more than safety. You fought for the soul of our Clan. Know that there's one who won't look away from you in shame for that mark."

His throat tightened, and he couldn't even croak out a response.

Shiran smiled proudly up at the Rider, showing very adult crinkles at the corners of her eye.

Rhin continued, scuffing at the dirt again, "Even if I don't agree on how you tried to do so."

"Nor I," said Shiran, still holding the needle and thread. "But you convinced her of your lie, Valin, which was the true goal. And now she's set a day and time, so you must hurry to Kirwen to offer her the same. I fear, however, that Kirwen may be the hardest to convince."

Valin shook his head, noting the stinging in his cheek as a reminder. "It seems, young Inventrix, that you know Kirwen less than you do Mirena. If I tell her of the firebomb, she will do whatever is necessary to save her people. She threatened to kill two of my squad in front of me if I didn't become—" and he gesture wryly at the traitor's mark, "—in order to give her information on our position and numbers. And I took her bargain to save them. As she will take the offer of a duel to do the same for her people."

Rhin studied him with an intensity he didn't expect to see. "You expected to die in that tent. Didn't you?"

"I did, Rider."

"So, you were willing to sacrifice your squad in order to stop our Inventrix."

Valin didn't hear condemnation in her voice, and he thanked the Forge Gods he hadn't, or he feared he would crumble into a hollow wreck, no more than a shell.

He wanted to stand, to pace from beneath the scrutiny of these two who seemed so young, but were anything but. Shiran placed a hand on his arm, still holding the needle before him as if showing him he still had a choice.

"There's one thing I've learned being prisoner among the Wheelteeth," he said. "It's that squadron is beyond blood. They're my family. And Zefir...is my family. My greatest friend. And I left him there...I left them all there. And Kirwen would've..." He inhaled to steady himself, but he hadn't the voice to continue.

Rhin remained silent, and Shiran squeezed his arm.

"I risked everything." He stared down at his stitched and bandaged hand, remembering the feel of the dagger in his fingers. "And failed. I almost killed them. To save..." The children of the enemy. The Elders. The sick and helpless.

Shiran's little girl voice made him look down into her childish face. "You're alive, Valin. And I must believe that your squadron is as well. There's still hope, my boy. Hope for life. Hope for the end of this conflict. A hope which I know you haven't lost, not completely. There's still fight and honor within you yet."

"Fight? Yes. But honor?"

She made a very Elder-like harrumph noise. "Honor is more than doing as your blood has done for centuries. And you've learned this, Valin. I know you have."

He rubbed at his forehead, the headache starting behind his eyes.

"Let me stitch it, Navigator," said Shiran. Her brow raised in that wry amusement he recognized from Kirwen, but without the bitterness. "Besides, your looks won't get any better even if I do stitch it. It depends on how you wear it—with pride or with shame. I hear tell from the other Navs your First Leader Nyru has scars of her own. Tell me, does she wear them well?"

His slight smile hurt. The Navs had a saying even for scars: Wear them well. "She does. She says it makes her mysterious as much as it makes her serious. Truth be told, I can never tell whether she's amused or irritated. Usually, it's both."

Rhin chuckled, sounding her true age. "I see why you claim her as one of your own blood."

Shiran still held the needle.

Slowly, Valin nodded to the young Inventrix, and her small, deft hands began to thread the needle through his flesh. He closed his eyes, and heard her humming to herself. Not a song he recognized. Perhaps part of her Inventrix's blood knowledge. Rhin began to hum along with her. When Shiran paused in her work, he asked, "What are you singing?"

"It's a song I heard a Rider sing once. Rhin's voice is very beautiful." 

He opened his eye to see Rhin cringing in mild embarrassment. She gestured in what he assumed was Rider-sign, similar enough to Nav signals that he caught the meaning—to the end of the flight. No, not flight.

"Scouts don't sing," the young Rider said. "It's ingrained in us. To be silent. But when we leave scout duty and join part of a march, we sing To the End of the March."

She sang, and Valin noticed she did indeed have a beautiful voice:

The march is over
To the ends we ride
Back to our brothers and sisters
To our mothers and fathers
To mates and children
Or to the grasslands of forever
To the ashes beneath the soil
As the bones on the field  
The march is over
To home we ride

He clenched his wounded hand, feeling it again as more than the one that held the dagger. Slowly, he smiled, stretching the new stitches in his cheek. To home. To his people, not a place. A family.

Just as Shiran clipped the last of the thread, he stood.

He would return to his family. They were home. His true, very small Clan.

#

Kirwen had allowed Zefir to spend some time with his squad before they were to move out, and when he approached the entrance of their all too familiar prison, Renzu was the sole guard. The man gave him a solemn nod of respect before opening the door.

When he entered the prison, his First, Second, and Third stared at him like one returned from the sundisk, while Innari pranced uncertainly on her feet. He watched them, almost disbelieving that he was here again with them. Jarre asked how he was, his Third's eyes searching his for shadowfall, and Zefir answered by bumping his nose against Jarre's chest. Nyru asked if he knew of Valin, and he hesitated to tell her what Valin had chosen: the squad's life for betrayal of their Clan. But he'd promised her he wouldn't hide or lie to his First, so with a nod, he told all he knew of Valin's bargain.

His squadron lasped into silence. Jarre squeezed his eyes shut and pinched them with his large fingers, while Ferrei chewed on her lip, and Nyru stared ahead with her fierce grimace.

Finally, Nyru spoke, "Our wing runner did what he thought best. For us."

The Quarethstras nodded solemnly.

With a great, weary sigh, Zefir said, "But that's not all. There's no more time."

Either I go to fight our own Clan tomorrow, or I save my squad.

Innari practically launched herself at him, keening softly, her words so fast he could barely understand anything but "Zefir-sibling, I'm sorry. So, so, sorry. Please don't hate me."

Baffled, he shook his head. "Why would I ever hate you?"

She backed away from him, curled in on herself and shivered. Innari gasped, "I can't do it! I can't open the lock! And now I won't be able keep you safe, or Ferrei-kin, or look after all the others like I promised Valin-friend."

It wrenched at Zefir's heart-mind to know that he'd caused his sibling so much distress and hurt. It was her first instance of it, and he remembered his confusion at the cold sensation all too well. And the baffling tears, which—

He watched as clear liquid cascaded down her sleek nose, and she shook her head. "I'm leaking, and I don't know why. It's not an injury. What's happening?"

"You're crying, little moon dragon," said Jarre softly.

"But what does it mean? Am I broken?" She shook again, tightening her long wings against her back.   

Zefir approached her, and gently placed one of his wings around her smaller frame. Though the bomb was inside him, he knew soon it would be his only hope to help them. For now, his wing contracted, feeling like they were throbbing painfully, and he pressed her closer. This is the last time I'll get to do this. And look, I've made her afraid and sad. Then the thought made his own eyes water: We'll never get to fly side by side.

"You're not stupid. It means you're sad," said Zefir, noticing that her shudders were slowly subsiding. "And sad people—or dragons like us—cry."

"I'm not sad," she said resolutely. "I'm angry. So angry. The second mechanism that I thought needed to be coded open at the same time is false. It's there for no reason for it other than to vex me. That means it's wrong, my work, all wrong. I have to start again and I can't finish—" she sniffled, shaking her head to flick the tear from her snout, "in time. So you see, I'm not sad."

"You can be angry and sad at the same time." Zefir tightened his wing, and he used the tip of his tail, foil-sails and all, to flick a lightly stinging slap against her flank. "Don't concern yourself with it, Innari. You tried. And sometimes we fail."

She pushed at him, and nipped at his side hard enough to pinch, but not to break the skin. "I'll try again. I have to."

"There's..." he hesitated. "Innari, you don't need to."

"No!" she cried, ears flat against her head. "You'll see, Zefir-sibling, I'll try again." She swiveled her ears toward Ferrei. "Will you still sit next to me?"

"In a moment, little flyer." His Second made the always at your side sign.

Ferrei shared a look with Nyru, who shook her head, his First's eyes bright as if with feverish thought. But it appeared that whatever Nyru disapproved of with that shake of her head, that Ferrei was determined to ignore it. When Innari raised herself to the lock, muttering to herself, lost in her task, Ferrei came to him and crossed her arms over her chest.

"You can't do this, Zefir," said Ferrei, eyes sharp. "And don't feign ignorance." Her voice dropped to a whisper, though if Innari weren't otherwise engaged his sibling could've heard perfectly. "You plan to rip yourself open, dragon. You would not honor us by doing so."

Valin's same words.

"Ten hells and sun bedamned," he cursed. "I don't care about blood honor. All that matters to me is that you live."

"But at what cost, Zefir?" she croaked.

It had been a while since Zefir had listened closely to his squadron's hearts, and he realized in more than one way. He had desperately blocked out the scent of them, but now he realized just how much of their scent was tinged with the fear-stink, their hearts thudding in an alternating pattern of dread and the concentrated effort to find a calm center. 

He thought he heard Seren's voice, but it was no more than a tickle of a thought. The heart speaks in more than words, dear dragon.

Nyru was watching him with an intense, almost feverish gaze, which turned inward in furious thought before focusing on him once more. Jarre was frowning in a very un-Jarre like manner, his brows creased and careworn, eyes haunted with both his present and—Zefir wondered—perhaps his past. Ferrei still stood with her shoulders back, chin raised, looking cool and certain, but he could hear by her breathing that appearing collected was the only thing holding his brave Second together.

"I can't let you do this," said Ferrei quietly. "And not just because of my vow, Zefir."

He took a step forward—gods, how little they all looked, these fragile fleshed humans. And he pressed the expanse of his nose into Ferrei's chest, inhaling the scent-profile he'd come to know as uniquely hers. Somehow he always thought of her scent like warm iron, like the taste of lightning in the air before the storm. He closed his eyes to memorize it more fully, scenting not just her fear, but recollecting other scents: her anger had been the smell of the sun baking the granite mountainside, her joy was the smell of flight—for flying had its own scents—the engine of the thopters, the air coming off the rivers, the clouds themselves.

When he opened his eyes, her hands were in the air, uncertain if she should touch him, like someone awkwardly considering whether or not they should return an unexpected embrace. He blinked once, slow, unwilling to break the sight of her when Ferrei finally smoothed her hand over his nose.    

"You can't do this," she said, "because you're squad. You're kin. My blood. You must let us go. Fly away from here. Survive. Fight another day."

He inhaled slowly again, scenting her certainty, hearing the low, steady cadence of her heart, the same cadence when she'd reached a final decision.

"That's," Zefir rumbled, "exactly why you must let me do this for you."

She shook her head with that wry grimace. "And you say you care not for blood honor, when you honor us all by saying such a thing." Ferrei focused on his nose again, his breath warming her hand. "But you can't—"

"He's made his decision." Nyru's voice came with unexpected softness, and Zefir wondered if that's the voice her bloodson knew when she took Denaru on his first flight. "And we can't dishonor such an offer."

"First Leader," Ferrei said sharply, "you can't be serious. You must order him. He'll listen to his First. Order him, Nyru, damn you."

Nyru's mouth quirked into a tight-lipped grimace. "This isn't something I can order or order against, and you know it, Second Leader."

Ferrei trembled, looking away. "You're allowing this? Why?"

Nyru's eyes were bright with grave certainty. "I'm not allowing anything. I can't stop him. He's made his decision. Ordering him not to do this for his squad...would only give him guilt in the end. And I won't do that. No one should feel guilt for such a deed. Therefore, we must accept his offer gracefully, my Second."

Ferrei turned her back on them all. Jarre rose from the cot, but he marched toward his blood-cousin and set a massive hand on her shoulder. "Ferrei, he's made the Offer of Life. You see that, don't you?"

"I won't accept it." She bit fiercely at her lower lip, and shrugged off his hand. "Fight on my side, damn you."

"Cousin," he said with his quiet basso rumble. "There's nothing to fight. Not this time. The Offer of Life has been made." He tried his best to smile, but it never made it to his face. "And with a great deal less praying and mumbling incantations."

Zefir snorted, stifling a sad laugh.

Jarre moved toward Zefir. "Sun-and-stars, dragon, why'd you have to go and make me like you?"

Zefir lifted his snout and licked his Third right across his face. Jarre let out a surprised grunt, and gave him a mock frown. "You know, maybe I should proclaim you reigning champion of cards." His smile disappeared as if it were too heavy to maintain. "Hells, Zefir, I always told you that you lead too strong and you should save your best cards for last."

"All my cards are gone but one," Zefir said. "And I'll use it to keep the game going. First flight, last flight, squad brother."

"First flight..." Jarre said, "last...oh, hells. I don't want to accept the offer either, Zefir."

"Then make me a promise." Zefir somehow felt lighter. Like he could fly free in this dismal place. He flexed his wings half-believing there was wind beneath them. "Take care of Innari. She needs you as much as I did."

"I swear—"

"No vows," Zefir insisted. "Just...a promise."

"A promise then. The little moon dragon is in good hands."

That he knew to be true. 

Nyru came to stand before him, and Zefir gave her his best dragon-imitation of a human bow. The scarred half of her face formed the smile perfectly for the first time he'd ever seen, knowing that it must take a painful effort to do so. "You remind me so much of Denaru. Good bleeding sun, you're just a boy."

For the first time he touched his implacable First, bumping his nose against her shoulder in a playful manner. "Not any longer."

She nodded, bowed to him, and motioned: We are the shield.

Zefir began to back away, back toward the corner of the room. He didn't want them to see his face when he...wrenched open his panel, or the pain that it caused.

"Zefir-sibling?"

She quivered, her long tail limp on the ground, tears rolling down her snout. He knew she still didn't understand, not fully. She took a step toward him, her massive wings folded tight against her and bounded toward him. For a minute he wondered if he would have to defend himself against her, but she slid to a stop and butted her head beneath his chin.

"They say you're flying away," she cried. "A last flight. I don't know what that means, but take me with you. I'll show you that I can fly faster. I'm sorry, sorry, sorry that I couldn't break the lock. It's my fault."

It hadn't been fair to ask it of her. What a wretched way to leave her.

"If you remember one thing I say, Innari-sibling, then remember this: it's not your fault. I shouldn't have asked it of you. That was unfair." He licked her cheek, tasting that even her tears were similar-yet-different from his. When he'd dried them off well as he could, he nipped at her and she made an attempt at a laugh. "You must do me a favor though. Will you do that for me?"

"Yes."

"When the hangar door opens, you must take the squad and fly away with them. Fly as far as you can and as fast. The gryphons you saw will try to chase you, but—"

"Those?" she scoffed. "I can outfly them. They're slow."

He felt his dragon grin stretch. It'd been a long time since he truly grinned. "Yes, but they have clamps and will try to catch you. They caught me."

"Because you're slow." She butted him again, and she reached for his hands, her claws digging into his skin to leave puncture marks. "You're going to give us the bomb to open the door, aren't you?" It wasn't quite a question. "Even though you'll hurt yourself."

"My squad is worth it."

"If they're your kin, and Valin-friend's kin, and Ferrei is my kin, then we're all family. Aren't we?"

Good gods, either the sun, or the Five Healers, or the Gods of the Forge, it didn't matter. How innocent she was. Let her stay that way, gods, if you're real or care.

The answer didn't come from the gods, but from Ferrei. "Yes, little flyer. Come away from your sibling now. Come and stay at our side. You can help me repair the device without all the pieces...it'll make this all easier." Then to herself, "It will."

Innari gave his cheek a gentle nip and bounded to Ferrei, curling her tail around the whole squad. Ferrei gently nudged his sibling so she was facing away from him, so she wouldn't see. His Second held Innari's large dragon face in her hands, her fingers running softly over Innari's eyelids so his sibling would close her eyes.

Zefir signed to them: Shield her as your own.

Each of his squad nodded, signing back: We are the shield.

He half turned from them, hearing that someone—or someones were drawing near. Not Kirwen. He knew he would sense her if she were to approach. Perhaps the change of their guards. He would need to be quick. He used his claws to find the all too smooth edge—unseen from the outside but he could feel it—of his chest panel, and he dug inward. The pain was sharp, but somehow distant. Parts of him became numb; he curled his hands and with a sharp jerk, wrenched it open.

His entire body went limp; it was no longer under his control, and he fell with a thud to the stone floor, staring at his squad. He could still see, his eyes were locked open. He expected darkness to take him, but this was far worse...he was locked inside, unable to move.

Innari let out a howling roar in pained disbelief.

Nyru raced forward and reached into his chest, taking out the firebomb. The doors rattled. Voices rose in a series of shouts, some of the words clear.

"Damn you, Zareth, get back! All of you go back to your family dwellings." Their guard, Renzu. "This isn't what you want. And I can't let you do this—"

"Shut up, Renzu," snarled the boy. Zareth. "Or we'll name you as a traitor too. Move aside and open up the door."

"Stand back," snarled Renzu. "Wait until Leader Kirwen hears of this."

"She's a traitor too. The biggest one of them all. She admitted she's one of them." Zefir heard cries of agreement—three, four people? More? A small crowd?

"To the hells with you, boy," snarled Renzu. Angry shouts from the crowd. "I know all of you. Go back to your dwellings, remain with your loved ones, and ask for peace from your chosen deities. The anger will pass if you—"  

"I will shoot you, Renzu." Zareth's voice lifted in concentrated fury. "Get out of the way, you stupid fool. The Cog scum will die whether you stand in the way or not. And after we're done with them, we'll take down the worst traitor among us."

"I can't let you kill them." Uttered with a calm Zefir recognized from his own squad. "You know nothing of duty, boy. Or honor and loyalty."

Nyru held the bomb out before her, an eerie calm certainty in her eyes, resolute. She motioned to Innari, who bounded to her side. "Lift me up to the hangar door, little dragon."

Innari picked Nyru up into her hands and lifted her; his First stuck her feet into the large gears, wedging them in, and held on to the large brass door handle. "Now take the others and shield them in the corner."

"No!" Jarre shouted at her. "First Leader, you can't..."

The bomb device was never finished, it's timing mechanism broken. Zefir had thought there would be time enough to repair it...but Nyru had known. Had made her own decision. There was only one way to set it off.

He shrieked in the cavern of his heart-mind, even if his body couldn't—no breath even, not blinking.

Ferrei grabbed Jarre with both hands as he surged forward, the corded muscles on his neck straining as he begged his First Leader. Ferrei's eyes were vacant, but she pulled her big blood-cousin back into the corner. Innari's wings unfurled in their strange quadruple-part fold to their utmost length, and she curled them around Jarre and Ferrei, closing her eyes as she shielded them with her brass bulk.

A single aeropistol shot rang in the cavern outside, and the small door swung open. Zareth entered with his pistol withdrawn, his fevered eyes glancing about the room for his chosen victims. A dozen others, men and women in mourning white entered with aerorifles at the ready.

Zareth looked up at Nyru hanging upside-down, and gasped in surprise; the others of his group swung the barrels of their weapons and aimed at Innari.

Nyru only gave him her terrifying grin-frown before she tore the housing apart in her hand, combining the three deadly chemicals.

Zefir wanted to close his eyes. But the resulting explosion etched itself in his unblinking sight—the cloud of debris, part stone, part blood. The way the crowd of men and women screamed, running out of the door, desperate to take cover. Zareth was on the ground, debris covering him. Dead? But he moved, blood pouring from his scalp; it turned his face into a bloody mask.

Dust covered his sibling's pristine shiny hide, and pinpricks of her red-black blood dotted her back. As she shuddered, he heard Ferrei cry, "Innari! We have to fly, and fly now!"

Dazed, she uncurled from around them, blinking in shock.

Ferrei made the signs for upslide flight, ascend, and his sibling understood. She lowered herself so Ferrei could climb to her back, and Jarre stood, eyes blank. Quickly, Ferrei made the furious signs for obey your order, screaming, "Get on the dragon, damn you!"

Jarre raced over to Zareth's fallen body—was there blood on Jarre's face?—and plucked up the boy's aeropistol, before he ran back, and in one bounding leap landed on Innari's back. His sibling tensed to spring when a flechette bolts pinged against the remnants of the hangar door.

Go, Innari! Hurry! he urged her desperately in his mind.

Innari craned her neck toward him as if she'd heard; Zefir was astonished to hear her thought-voice in his chest, stronger even than Kirwen's voice. I go!

She released the sound of her roar—an ear-splitting high-pitched shriek that sounded like it would carve his head into splinters. She leapt through the hole with a desperate bound.

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