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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Clockwork Dragon #29: Searching for the True Enemy


They had flown to a small little brook on the Wheelteeth's lands, and exhausted, Valin had fallen asleep on Zefir's back the moment they landed. But Zefir reveled in the dappled sunlight from the trees overhead warming his brass flank, and he listened closely to the cadence of Valin's breathing. He wanted to let his Navigator sleep for as long as he needed. But Zefir knew they couldn't. He was just about to wake Valin when his own eyes grew lidded. Blissfully, he began to nod off without seeing Nyru's last moments, or her remains...he'd stared at those without blinking, unable to look away...carved indelibly forever inside his heart-mind. But he pushed it away, because he knew he couldn't function if he thought on it.

To hells with you, shadowfall. You can take me later. But not now.

Distantly, he heard Valin's voice calling to him. Zefir awoke with a start, panic making his heart-mind whirr wildly inside. His mind fought to identify the source of the threat, and he flailed his wings, looking above him for an attack.

"Zef! It's all right." Valin placed his wounded hand out toward him, and made the sign for all clear with his free hand. "It's all right."

Zefir settled back on his haunches and studied his Navigator, the panic slowly fading. Again, he peered at the X stitching on Valin's cheek, red and raw. Valin saw him looking, and stared back, chin lifted without shame. Or remorse.

"Valin, I must know—"

"I earned this, Zef." Valin lowered his hand as if afraid to touch him. Or to comfort. "Your Mother did this to me. And it was well deserved."

Zefir shook his head. "Then she didn't understand why you went to spy for Kirwen. Did you explain that it was for us?" For Nyru, now gone. And for Jarre and Ferrei even now escaped.

Valin's mouth moved, but no sounds came out. Zefir hated seeing it, the way Valin would struggle to explain something complex to him, looking for the right words to simplify it for a child. But Zefir didn't need to be coddled. "You did something else, then. You saw something."

"I..." Valin placed his wounded hand on Zefir's nose, and Zefir could scent the blood on the bandage, and something else. Something fetid. "It's too terrible to speak on. I don't want to hurt you with it."

Zefir let out a bark of a cynical laugh, echoing along the forest floor. "After what I've seen, Valin—" the image of Nyru's last grin stretched before his sight, before he buried it again, "—after what we've done, I think I can weather it. Tell me, Valin. Trust me as member of your squad. Not as the friend you want to protect."

Valin pinched his eyes closed, before he sighed. "You're right, Zef. But I also don't want to see the anger and judgment in your eyes. I can take judgment from anyone under the sun...but not from you."

"I promised you long ago that you could reveal anything to me, and I would listen." Zefir snuffled at the scent of Valin again, an almost ill tang to the profile he'd made of his Nav in his mind. "I promise I won't judge you."

Valin began to pace, opening his mouth several times before he turned around to face Zefir.

"Your Mother plans to kill them, Zefir," Valin growled, shaking his head as if to deny the truth of it to himself. "The innocent ones. The Wheelteeth children. The Elders. The sick and wounded and...and I couldn't let her. Gods, Zefir, she built a firebomb large enough to light the sky on fire. To melt the Wheelteeth mountain down around their ears. And I..." His Navigator inhaled, expression haunted.

Zefir knew. He stifled a disturbed keening sound from rattling in his chest. "You tried to hurt her—no, I know, Valin. You tried to end her life somehow." Zefir fluttered his wings, wanting to soothe Valin's obvious pain, but he felt a tinge of resentment and fear that he desperately tried to push away. I promised Valin I wouldn't judge his actions. "I don't want to believe that Mother would be so heartless. But even I'm not so childish and naïve that I'd believe she wouldn't make something to help end the war. Something worse than a battle dragon. I see you couldn't convince her, and so you tried something worse out of desperation. But maybe I can convince her."

Valin's crestfallen expression was enough of an answer. "Zefir...I think she's beyond that. She's dying. You know that. I'm sorry, my friend, but I think her mind has frayed beyond being able to reason with her. She truly thinks that sacrificing all those innocents is worth the price. To save our Clan. But I couldn't let her, so I tried to...yes, Zefir, I tried to kill her."

Zefir hung his head, but shook himself of the need to mentally retreat from his Navigator's words.

Valin approached him, still hesitant to touch him. "The only other thing that made it through to her was that...she loves you."

Zefir looked away from his Navigator. If Mother was capable of such things, he didn't know if he wanted to think on her being able to love at all. Even if Zefir was the only thing she was capable of loving.

"You must remember that," Valin said quietly. "She told me she loves you."

Zefir blinked, feeling the sting in his eye, and the cold creeping into his core. But weeping was too exhausting. He pushed it away, focusing elsewhere. "If I can't convince her, and there's no time to try, then we must stop the firebomb. I can't let her...do that. All those people..."

Valin began to pace again, but looked haggard, his steps heavy and slow. "I think I gave us time. I told the mirrors that the other..." And Valin paused, concern etching his brow as he studied Zefir's dragon face. Slowly, he nodded. "I told the mirrors that if they agreed to a duel, the loser would surrender. They go to fight when the Innari moon appears in the sky tomorrow afternoon. While they fight, the coming end battle remains at a standstill." 

Valin still wasn't telling him everything. Zefir narrowed his gaze. "There's more. Tell me."

"I—I think Mirena still plans to launch the firebomb, no matter the outcome of the duel. Likely, she will do so before the duel begins. Maybe she's done so already. I convinced Kirwen to begin evacuation, but...the Wheelteeth need more time to get their innocents to safety."

Zefir exhaled, and clenched his teeth together so hard that his jaw ached. How could Mother choose to do this? How could his creator have slipped so far? Is it because I wasn't there? "You know where the firebomb is. You've seen it. We can fly there right now."

His Navigator shook his head. "Mirena wouldn't have let me go if she didn't plan on moving the bomber dragon and its cargo. And her forces." Valin's mouth firmed in a line. "And Zefir, the bomber dragon she built is easily four times your size, and you're the biggest thing in the air. Even if we find it, I don't know how we can stop it."

Zefir focused on the task at hand, thinking about what such a beast of a flyer would mean. "Something that large is too conspicuous. And if it has squads protecting it, it will be easy to spot. Hells, I can probably hear its wingbeats—"

"It's a fixed winged flyer," Valin said with a touch of wonder. His techworker side. "With wheels rather than running legs."

"An engineless glider?" Zefir flicked his tail, opening the foil-sails near the tip. "It wouldn't be able to maneuver much. And would have to be launched either by being dragged from the ground by a team of bomber dragons, or from—"

"A height." Valin agreed. "But it has an engine. That much I could tell. But I don't see how they could get that monstrosity from the canyon to any sort of height."

"If they're not dropping it from above, then they need to give it a running leap. A long, very flat surface to gain enough speed. And maybe a ramp to give it lift." Zefir frowned. "Where was it originally?"

Valin crouched and began drawing lines in the soil. He scratched peaks to represent the Wheelteeth mountain range and their current position so close to the Wheelteeth cave-home. Then the canyons and smaller peaks westward. Zefir peered at it, forming a map in his mind. They'd been carried into the Wheelteeth's territory in a sack—how long ago? More than a year ago?— but he remembered the lay of the land with a flyer's precision. He used the tip of a claw to draw the salt flatlands near the Burned Stone where...where Mother would fight her mirror. "Here. It isn't too far from the canyons, and yet flat enough to launch something that large."

"It's too open," Valin said critically. "They can't hide the escorting squads. Or the damned flyer either."

Zefir let out a weary sigh. "At this point, Valin, I don't think they care. It's half a day's flight there, and even if a Wheelteeth scout found them and escaped the hawklings patrolling the area, it'd be half a day's flight back. Enough time for what they need."

Valin rested his face in his hands before smoothing them away, seeming to remember the X upon his cheek. Zefir could see how much weight his Nav had lost, how haggard his frame, and how deep the bruises beneath his eyes. Valin needed sleep. And food. And hells, a good hot bath.

"You can stay here, Valin," Zefir said quietly. "You don't have to go with me."

Now it was Valin's turn to narrow his gaze disapprovingly. "Enough of that talk, you ridiculous creature. You'd overheat halfway there without me. And how do you expect to fly high enough to evade anything? You need a Nav, and I need a flyer. If we do this, we do it together. Or not at all." The deep line between his brow deepened. "Tell me, friend, that you know what this means. Tell me, Zef, that you believe this is the right action to take."

"We have to save them, Valin, because no one else will. I don't hate them. I never did. The only enemy is the firebomb." Zefir curled his tail around his feet, and stared down at the map in the dirt. "But I know it will mean flying against our own people."

Valin didn't answer for a long breath of time. Finally, he met Zefir's eye. "Not only will I bear the brand—" and he gestured to the X, "—but I'll carry it with me here," and he tapped his chest with his knuckles. "You will too, Zefir."

"I know."

"And we'll do this alone."

Zefir reached out a clawed hand and gently rested his large thumb on Valin's shoulder, his entire hand curling around him as if in physical support. "Perhaps not. Innari may still be close. If we can find the rest of our squad, they may help."

Valin patted Zefir's brass thumb. "We can't waste time looking for them."

"We may not have to. I heard Innari's thought-voice. She must've given me her virul-cogs before I opened my panel. I don't know at what kind of range I can hear her. But if I send out my thoughts, she might hear me."

"We can't rely on that. We must leave."

Before Zefir could think on it, he licked his Navigator on his unwounded cheek, and Zefir tasted something wrong. Something off, sickly almost. Valin blinked for a moment before a true laugh burst from him, one unfettered by weariness. He patted Zefir's nose with a genuine smile, before it too disappeared beneath the weight of his thoughts, eyes distant. Zefir had to wonder, as Valin leaped into place on his back, if this would be the last time they would fly together.

"First flight—" Zefir rumbled.

"I think of all our flights as the first, Zef," said Valin quietly from his Nav seat.

Zefir opened his wings, and launched skyward. Then let this be like our first...and not our last.

#

"Innari! Come find me!" came Zefir's voice over the roar of the wind.

Valin knew that his dragon was shouting to his sibling inside his chest, using those bedamned virul-cogs to call to her, just as assuredly as he spoke aloud now and again.

Valin indicated he should adjust the foil-sail tail to arc into another warm updraft to glide toward their destination. There were less and less of those now well past midnight, and maybe even toward sun-up. Valin was so exhausted he wasn't even sure how much time had passed. He had insisted on landing to gain some rest, but Zefir had insisted on continuing on, catching air pockets where he could, and taking long strokes of air when he couldn't. Valin trusted his dragon to survey the terrain in the dark, able to see with his mechanical sight, but Valin was less adept at helping through his Nav panel until Khandra rose to add her silvery light.

Valin wanted to peel off his flight jacket, his skin on fire. He could feel sweat slicking his shirt beneath the jacket pressing it close to his body. He couldn't remember when he'd last drank water, but his mouth was dry, and lips cracked until they bled.

He could just make out the Burned Stone in the distance, a great plateau of stone so dark and shiny that it faintly glimmered in the light of the big silvery gibbous moon. He peered at it, seeing glassy swirls in this rock—this obsidian slab atop the plateau. Sharp spikes were weathered around the edges, but the center was smooth like a still pond. The terrain itself seemed like a weapon.

Valin couldn't speak to his dragon over his implanted connection, having broken it long ago. But he Nav made signals through the panel to land. He spotted a place on the backside of the rocky plateau in between a narrow hedge of stunted, lanky trees, smelling the salt plain of the empty long ago riverbed, and gave the signal to land there. Slowly, Zefir descended, and once the dragon alighted, Valin slid from Zefir's back, his legs wobbling. Surprised, Zefir reached out to steady Valin with a wing.

"You're sick," Zefir stated.

When he opened his flight jacket, the shirt beneath it was soaked and clinging to his skin, but the cool air wasn't as soothing as he hoped. Valin shook his head, and began to unwrap the bandage on his hand, tearing pieces of it with his teeth. The wound was puckered and inflamed, and he could feel heat radiating from it.

"Suppuration," Valin said, mouth twisted wryly. "Haven't had time to keep it clean since Shiran rebandaged it."

"You've a fever." Zefir's tail flicked. "And you're not wearing enough gear to protect you from the cold at the altitudes we're flying."

Valin slicked back the hair clinging to his moist forehead. "There's nothing to be done for it. Give me ten minutes, and then we'll fly on."

Zefir shook his head. "Stay here. I'll fly low into the salt plain, and—"

"No," Valin snapped. He breathed in, wiping away more sweat with the back of his hand. "I told you we either do this together, or not at all. Just...give me some time."

Zefir sat on his haunches and looked away. "How much time, Valin?"

"We'll rest about ten minutes, then we'll—"

"That's not what I meant." His dragon met his eye. Zef had been naïve, but never a fool; the look Zefir gave him now wasn't reproachful, but rather forthright. Quicksilver eyes weighed the logical outcome. There was no obvious distress on that dragon face, and Valin wondered if Zef had grown adept at either hiding his feelings to remain strong, or if he was pushing them far beneath the surface for the same reason.

Valin sighed, feeling the shudders running through him. "I-I don't know. It depends on how quickly the suppuration spreads. But it doesn't matter. We must continue on."

Zefir nodded, his expression again serious. And then froze. He cocked his head to the side as if listening, and then crouched on all fours like a feline ready to pounce.

Valin thought he heard the sound of footsteps...perhaps not footsteps. No, the softer clank of metallic hooves. One of his Clan's Riders. Scouts. Zefir rose to his feet and placed himself between Valin and whatever Rider was coming; the dragon pressed his wings tight against his side and bounded forward, racing on all fours like a blur.

Valin chased after him.

He saw a flash of metal as he rounded the weathered stone, and Zefir launched himself in a tackling move. The massive silver coghorse reared, its sharp hooves lashing out, but Zefir slammed into the creature. The dragon lifted Daimo into his sizable clawed hands; the horse screamed, shrill and piercing.

The coghorse bellowed in a deep basso voice, "Rider, stay back!"

A lithe figure appeared from the shadow of the rock, swathed in tight fitting clothing painted to blend into the rockface, a grey and white set of swatches covering all but her eyes. She had nocked an arrow to her cam-and-pulley bow, and had it pointed at him.

Valin called to his friend. "Zef, put the coghorse down."

Carefully, Zefir set the wriggling coghorse down, making certain to keep his claws away from the creature's flank. Settled on all fours once more, the coghorse glared at him with eyes that matched the Burned Stone, baring his teeth.

Rider Rhin drew back the hood of her scout wraps, her braided hair frazzled.

Valin stepped forward, and the Rider relaxed her bowstring. He must waste no time in exchanging pleasantries with the young First Leader. "Mirena's forces, Rhin. They're near here, aren't they? On the salt river plain?"

"Why?" she asked, voice thin. "So you can try to gain another mark on the opposite cheek?"

"If it means stopping the firebomb," said Valin, "then yes. Tell me, Rhin. Tell me where the bomber dragon is. You don't agree that it should be launched anymore than I do. Help me, Rider. Please...help me save them."

She trembled, before gripping her bow until her knuckles looked ready to burst from the confines of her skin. "If I tell you, I deserve the brand as assuredly as you do."

Zefir leaned down closer to her, and the coghorse let out a warning whinny. But Zefir peered at her with that innocent candor Valin so admired.

"Please, Rider Rhin," Zefir said. "It's important."

Valin walked forward, and reached into his flight jacket pocket and withdrew Mayra's rust-colored bloody handkerchief; it had become his talisman, his symbol for why everything was so damned wrong. She stuttered in wordless protest as Valin opened her hand and placed it in her palm. She stared down at it in confusion.

"A little Wheelteeth girl gave this to me because she saw me crying," Valin said, voice hoarse. "Her name is Mayra. And she'll burn, Rhin, if you don't help us."

Her lips pressed together. She shuddered, before she handed the handkerchief back. "The bomber dragon launched from the salt plain four hours ago with a single Wing compliment as escort. It flies slow, or so I heard the Navs say." She swallowed, and touched the quiver at her side as if she could draw strength from it. "I heard from some that our Inventrix herself will be the sole Navigator. Shiran thinks that..." she clenched her teeth before spitting, "that Mirena would want to fly it herself, but we don't know for certain."

Valin watched his dragon for his reaction to that news. But Zefir stared forward as if it meant nothing to him. As if the fact that he would be forced to take down the bomber dragon with his own creator as Nav was just another bit of information to digest logistically.

Valin had stopped sweating, but now he was shaking with the cold. His stomach protested, but he clamped his teeth together to stop anything from coming up. That seemed to move his dragon once more, as Zefir placed a wing out to stop the wind from flying toward him, his nose snuffling at the ill-scent.

Rhin shook her head, and reached for a small pack attached to her wraps. She tossed it to Valin, who awkwardly caught it in his good hand. "Fly quickly, Navigator Valin. I won't report that I saw you..." Rhin nodded firmly. "Use the med-kit before it gets worse. It won't cure you, but it'll help."

Zefir bowed his head, expanding his wings. "Thank you, Rider."

Her expression creased in pain. "Don't thank me, dragon, for the blood-shame I will now carry with me." She touched her cheek. "I already feel the burn of the X."

Zefir came closer, and the coghorse didn't stop him, rather stepping back to allow him passage. Zefir licked her cheek, and the Rider stood there stunned. Blinking. Zefir said, "There is no shame in saving lives, Rider Rhin."

"At the cost of others." She touched her cheek. "But I can see you already know that."

"We all have our own marks." Zefir paced back to Valin, and hunkered to allow him to gain his seat. "Some are just easier to see than others."

Good gods o' the Forge, is that wisdom, or the best way to deal with these horrors? He wasn't certain whether or not to be concerned with Zefir's passive acceptance, or if he should adopt the same attitude. Or perhaps it doesn't matter.

Rhin tossed her flechette pistol to him, and he caught it.

Valin leaped on Zefir's back, and Zefir's legs quivered to launch skyward, but the coghorse came forward and stomped a hoof on the rock. "Rider Valin, some of yours made it to our camp hours before. An insufferable creature calling herself the moon dragon came with them. But she told me that while I was out, that if I saw a dragon like her—but bigger and slower—that I was to let you know that she and her squad-family are safe with us."

Jarre and Ferrei had made it back to their Clan. His squad had made it.

It lightened some of the heaviness inside.

Zefir released a relieved sigh. Then with a single direction from Valin, sprang aloft. 

Read Part 30: There is but One Enemy

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