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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #31: A Line of Gratitude

Valin's mind screamed at him to open his eyes. How can I open my eyes when I'm dead? But still, he had the persistent thought that he must awaken—even from death—to see if Zefir was...still alive. I can't die if he's still alive. If he's gone, Forge Gods, then I go to the Eternal Forge willingly. Or have I earned a place instead with Nyru with her ancestors in the sundisk? Maybe Ferrei is there too...and Jarre. And he couldn't die without knowing either if his Second and Third Leaders had survived.

There was pain, of that he was keenly aware. Bandages. The feeling of heat still along his skin. But slowly, he opened his eyes. Gods, even his eyelids felt seared raw. Blinking hurt, but after a time, he blinked away painful tears and stared blearily up at the tan cloth of a tent.

All that he remembered was falling, falling...screaming Zefir's name, and then gryphons coming toward him, clamping their feet over Zefir's limbs to keep them from kissing the ground.

His heart leaped into a rapid thud when a lithe brass snout entered his field of vision. Violet-colored eyes accessed him, and her dragon hand, claws retracted, rested on his tightly wrapped swath of cloth covering his broken collarbone. With a gentle voice, she said, "Don't move just yet, Valin-friend."

"Zefir?" he coughed.

"Is beside you." She blinked at him, and her deft dragon fingers touched the pulse at his wrist.

"Is he...?" The words were more agonizing than all of the pain in his body.

"My sibling is alive, Valin-friend. I never thought I'd see him alive, but he is. I thought I saw him...die. But he's here. And I came when I heard his voice, even though Ferrei told me it couldn't possibly be Zefir-sibling." She smiled at him, a big, innocent grin of pure joy. And Valin thought on the very first moment he'd seen Zefir smile, and how he thought it strange to have such a human expression on such an animalistic face. But it wasn't strange anymore, and he reveled in her baring her small, needle teeth at him. "My sibling is sleeping soundly."

He ignored the hand on his shoulder, and started to sit up from the healing cot. "How bad is it, Innari?"

She placed a hand beneath his shoulder and slowly helped him sit. "I'll help you go to him, because I know you won't rest until you see him."

Sitting up made his head whirl, and he looked down at his throbbing hand. It no longer felt hot to the touch, but he knew that some of the suppuration had been cut from him. Innari saw him regarding his hand, and nodded. "I considered taking your entire hand, but managed to save it with the serums I concocted in my claws. As for your other injuries, the burns will heal. Luckily, they're fairly minor."

She extended her long wings, and he grasped them for support as he stood, head tight. He closed his eyes against a momentary wave of nausea. "How is Ferrei? And Jarre? Are they...?" He still couldn't say the word.

"Ferrei-kin is well. And Jarre-kin...he sustained a few minor injuries when his flyer crashed. Nothing that won't heal."

His squadron was alive. Alive!

"And the battle?" he dared.

"Ferrei told me that the slow ketch-gryphons managed to chase away or take down the bigger bomber dragons because there were so many of them. And the big beast one...it got away. The battle is over."

An innocent statement, from an equally innocent creature.

Valin looked from behind Innari's wing, and he saw his dragon lying on his side on the other side of the tent, eyes closed. He stumbled forward and fell at Zefir's side, releasing a relieved laugh through the stutters of his shaky breath. Hesitantly, he reached out to touch Zef's side, at the large gash the hawkling had left in the flesh, awfully close to the scar of Zefir's first crash. But it looked like it had been stitched closed with a strange, pseudo-metallic thread. Likewise, Zefir's delicate wing membranes, some of the cooling veins had been moved in order to allow the stitching. And the burns...those were already healing, but the color of that brass flesh around his arms and torso was a vile, sickly looking rust-color.

"You...?" Valin gestured. "You did this, Innari?"

She nodded with a pleased purr-rumble.

Valin closed his eyes and listened to the cadence of Zefir's breathing.

"First flight ended well," came the tired baritone. "Don't you think?"

He opened his eyes to see Zefir looking at him with a faint smile. Valin had to clear his throat, couldn't speak, and made half of the sign for: first flight, last flight.

Valin wordlessly protested as Zefir forced himself up off of his side. "We made it, Valin. It hurts, but that just means new scars, that's all." And Zefir glanced pointedly at all of the wounds on Valin. "You'll wear them well too."

Valin wanted to ask, but was fearful. Zefir nodded, understanding. "Innari tells me the firebomb went off so high that none of the fire made it anywhere near the ground."

They'd done it. Valin stifled the need to cry in relief, instead grinning so fiercely that the stitches of the X on his cheek were pulled painfully taught. "You did that, Zef. I was just your passenger."

"No," said the dragon seriously. "You were my Navigator. We did it together."

Innari touched him gently with her nose. "Ferrei-kin and I were able to disable the smaller firebomb. No one came to harm. Well...except for those who fought in the battle. Ferrei-kin wanted me to join the fight, but I-I couldn't."

Zefir slowly extended the tip of his wing, stifling the pain no doubt, to touch her cheek. "Battle isn't your calling, my sibling. Healing is. This is where you belong."

Valin heard a rustle at the tent flap, and Innari let out a fierce growl that surprised him. With that lightning quick sinuous motion, she bounded to the entrance and stuck her nose outside, barking, "I told you no before, small thing. Go away."     

But Valin knew who it must be. "Let her in, Innari."

With an irritated grunt, the little dragon sidled away from the tent's entrance. And Kirwen entered, soot and blood on her white-mourning clothes. She'd gone to battle in them, and it seemed fitting to Valin that she should. That perhaps they all should've.

She bowed to them with a grace only an Inventrix could match, keeping her head lowered. "I owe both of you a great debt that I can never repay. You saved my people at great cost to yourselves." She lifted her gaze, and Valin wondered if it chaffed for her to show any kind of obeisance to another. But her posture wasn't one of pride bending before another. Kirwen went to her knees, sitting on her heels the way in centuries past that Riders and Navigators had once done to focus themselves before battle. "You saved them, Zefir. My children, all of them. And you saved them Valin, giving yourself a brand that will never fade away."

Valin bit his tongue, but Zefir lifted his chin. "We didn't do this for you, Kirwen."

"I know, Zefir," she said quietly. "And I love you all the more for it."

Valin felt Zefir's angry quiver beneath his hand. His dragon breathed in steadily before saying, "You know nothing of love, Kirwen. Not since you broke from your mirrors. And even then I don't think you understood it fully."

She pressed her lips together, eyes flashing. "How can you say that when you've seen what's within me? What even now you can read from me like a book?"

Valin opened his mouth to tell Kirwen to leave Zefir alone, but closed it again. If anything his dragon proved he could fight his own battles. And as much as Valin wanted to spare him this, Zefir would only dismiss the intrusion.

"Love requires sacrifice," Zefir said earnestly.

Her brows lowered, but she still remained kneeling. "Do you think I haven't sacrificed everything?"

Zefir grunted as he got to his feet, and clenched his teeth as he folded his wings against his back. Even Kirwen protested. "Lie back down, Zefir. Rest."

But the dragon stepped toward the Wolf Leader. "I know you've sacrificed, Kirwen. But you haven't sacrificed everything. You haven't sacrificed your vengeance. And that's why I know you still don't understand the meaning of love."  

"Child, you don't understand," she said softly.

"You know that's untrue," Zefir said.

On both accounts, Valin thought. Zefir did understand, and he was a child no longer.

She shook her head and remained in her kneeling pose. "Whatever you think of me, Zefir, I repay my debts. Even the monster I've become has some honor left." Kirwen regarded Valin for a moment before looking up into Zefir's face. "Name what you want of me, and if it is in my power I will grant it."

Zefir's expression hardened. "You know what I'll ask. I've begged you before to offer up peace."

She sighed. "That I can't grant."

Zefir sat tiredly on his haunches, his wounded wings drooping with his exhaustion. "Several things, Kirwen. Firstly, my squad mates are no longer your prisoners, nor will they ever be again. You or yours will never hurt them in any way. Physically or otherwise."

Kirwen nodded solemnly. "I owe them for their bravery as well. Even after I threatened their lives, they saved my people. People they made it their lives to fight against. It is done. They have immunity and are free to go." She hesitated, and Valin wondered if she spoke to Zefir through their virul-connection.

Zefir spoke his response to her words aloud, "Perhaps in time I'll accept your apologies for...for Nyru. But not now. Not when I can see her when I close my eyes. Maybe I'll never be able to accept it. I honestly don't know."

Valin rose to his feet, though his entire body protested. He came to his friend's side and placed a hand on the dragon's shoulder, still saying nothing. There were tears in those quicksilver eyes, but Zefir blinked them back. Quietly, Valin said, "You can mourn her, Zef. Even now if you need to."

Valin hadn't had time to think on Nyru's ultimate sacrifice, and found he still felt hollow. Numb to it. Perhaps it's what he needed to continue on, and sometime in the future he would be able to grieve for her, and give thanks to her sacrifice. If there is love in sacrifice, then our stolid First loved us deeply, as much as honor and duty fueled her.

Zefir inhaled to steady himself. "Secondly, any prisoners from the Cog Clan you have now from the battle, you will release them. Any here among the healing tents will finish their recuperation among you, and then be released when they choose to go."

Only a second of hesitation before she nodded. "Granted."

"And lastly," said Zefir, "if you will not consider the option of peace, then you must allow me to go to Mother to see if I can convince her. Postpone the duel for a few hours. Give me that."

Kirwen shook her head sadly. "After what she tried to do to my people you think she's capable of thinking on peace?" Her face contorted in fury, her leather gloved hands creaking as she clenched them into fists. "She tried to murder them in fire, like a coward. My children. The Elders and my sick and wounded. There is no greater atrocity. Even if I had a hint of forgiveness within me for her crimes, her many crimes, my people remember. They will not want peace after almost being annihilated, even if Mirena dared offer such a thing. And she won't. Even if she weren't decaying. But she's slipped farther even than I have." Kirwen paused, and forced her hands to relax. "I'm sorry, Zefir, but she's beyond even you."

Valin wondered if she knew her people as well as she thought. "There is no harm in trying, Wolf Leader. And everything to gain if he succeeds."

"My people, dear Seven, won't accept her peace offering, even were she to offer it."

Zefir leaned closer to her, peering at her with one great eye. "Are you so certain? Have you asked your Council?"

She frowned. "The Council of Elders has fled into the forests with the children." Then she hesitated. "Except for Elder Lyth. She insisted on staying to help organize evacuations."

Ah, grandmere Lyth, thought Valin. "She's here, isn't she? Among the healing tents?"

"Just so. My distant grandchild is a stubborn one. Perhaps all of my line are."

Zefir made a curious noise. "And what does she say?"

Kirwen rose to her feet in one fluid motion, chin once again raised. "If it comes to an offer of peace from your Clan, then I'll consult Orenna. But until such time, I've things to attend to and so does she." She stared up into Zefir's eyes. "I'll grant you your few hours, child, though I want nothing more than for you to heal. Flying will be a small agony."

Zefir gave her a wry smile, of a kind that seemed very much like Kirwen's own. "I've flown through worse."

Valin let out a snort.

Kirwen lifted her hand as if she wanted to touch Zefir, but with a painful effort she closed her hand into a fist and brought it down to her side. "I know you can't reach her, Zefir. But part of me hopes you can. For your sake, not hers. She was lost a long time ago."

"As were you," Zefir whispered.

Kirwen turned to Valin. "Any requests from the Navigator?"

In all honesty, Valin could think of nothing she could grant him. He was a traitor to his own Clan, now no more than an exiled roamer. Even the Lesser Clans wouldn't dare to take him in.

"No, Wolf Leader," he said. "I've nothing to ask for that you haven't already granted Zefir."

She studied him, before saying wryly, "There is a time limit on my offer as there is a time limit on my own life."

He wanted to be angry at her. He wanted to tell her that she was a monster, that she had scarred him irrevocably. She forced his hand, she forced Zefir's. And Nyru. His losses...were...were her fault. Or were they the fault of the war itself? Kirwen certainly hadn't forced him to try to murder his own Inventrix, that had been his own decision. But there was only that weary numbness. Even anger was beyond his reach.

"You started this war, you and Mirena," he said. "And like Zef said, you can end it. If you won't even consider such an action, then I've nothing to ask of you other than this," he growled for emphasis, "promise to stay the hells away from Zefir. From my squad. Promise never to interfere in our lives again."  

She bowed to him with that eerie grace. "Granted, my grandson."

Without another word she spun on heel and exited the tent. Valin released a breath he didn't know he'd been holding when he heard Kirwen's authoritative voice demand, "What is this? Atsuke...explain."

Innari poked her head from the tent flap, moving the cloth enough to where Valin could see a very large group of Wheelteeth Navigators standing outside. All of them were at attention and somberly silent. He grasped Innari's wing and tried to pull her, hissing, "Step back inside, Innari. Go hide in the corner." He glanced around, looking for anything he could use as a weapon.

Zefir didn't move, instead touching Valin with his nose. "Wait, Valin. I don't hear anger in their heartbeats. They don't smell of rage."

Valin's mind stuttered, as he still cast about for a weapon. He tried to push against Zefir's bulk to force the dragon into the corner, panic making his head throb, and his eyes ache. They couldn't fly out of here, not yet. Zef was hurt. He would fight them all, damn them to the ten hells, with bare fists if he had to.

"Don't let the shadowfall take you, my Navigator," said the dragon quietly. "Be at peace."

Zefir walked forward, lithe as a grasslands lion, and left the confines of the tent.

Valin sprinted after him.

There were perhaps fifty people standing outside the tent. Too many. Now the weary numbness retreated, leaving only protective anger in its wake. He gestured to them all, and bellowed, "If you think that you can try to destroy either of the dragons while I still breathe—"

Zefir's wing encompassed his body, pulling him back, and he could see the stitches holding parts together. "They mean no harm."

"You can't know that, Zef," he said, hands in fists, as Zefir lowered his wing. "What have they already done to Ferrei and Jarre?"

Innari arced her neck down until her cheek brushed his. "Ferrei-kin is well and so is Jarre-kin. They have seen the crowd and are on their way, even though I told her that there's no need."

Valin spied Ferrei and Jarre running toward them from the closest tent. Innari bounded toward them, gesturing for them to calm themselves. Quickly, his Second and Third formed up next to him, eyes narrowed. Jarre, Valin noticed, was also possessed of a quickly slashed X on his cheek, almost as if he weren't worth the trouble to mark him properly.

Valin only had time to register that Innari must have given Ferrei her virul-microcogs, when Kirwen barked at the young Navigator at the head of the crowd, "I said explain, Atsuke."

The young woman cleared her throat. "Apologies, Leader. We only wish to give our thanks to the dragons and their Navigators."

Thanks? Valin's tired mind stuttered on the concept.

Zefir turned his head slightly to the side to study the young woman. "We signaled our intent to you. Didn't we? It was you in the gryphon."

She bowed, nodding. "And you are the one that saved my life during our training exercise, Dragon Zefir. But your lessons saved me more than once. I was a farmer before I volunteered for flight duty, but I heeded your advice in the sky. It kept me alive." The young Nav spread her hands wide as if helpless to truly express herself. "I've nothing of worth to give you. I wish that there was."

Zefir bowed his head, eyes glowing a gentle silver. "Your thanks are worth more than you will ever know, Navigator..."

"Atsuke Xei," she said. "Renzu was my father. And though he gave his life to protect your squadron from our own Clan, I know if he were alive now he would be standing proudly beside me." Her voice cracked as she said, "You saved my little sisters and brothers, my grandmeres and grandferes. My friends. My people...even after what Zareth did to you. Did to my father. Words seem so...trite."

"Words always seem inadequate, Navigator Xei," Zefir said gently. "Among my Clan we who fly have a purpose that we live by. It is for you who fought to keep your innocents safe. We use a sign. But I hope that one day you will use it long after the war is over, though it came from your enemy."

Others behind her nodded, or solemnly vocalized their assent.

Zefir slowly made the we are the shield sign. "It means: we are the shield. It took me a long time to realize that being the shield meant more than just my Clan. Or my own family." Zefir glanced in his squadron's direction. "Being a shield for others who cannot help themselves...that's what I realized in the air."

Atsuke Xei made the gesture, looking as awkward with the elegant sign as Valin so often did. Those behind her followed, some trying the sign several times to make certain that they remembered it correctly.

Xei bowed gracefully to Valin and his squadron. "If you are not too exhausted from your wounds, those standing before you would like to offer their individual thanks as well."

"Of course," Zefir said.

Valin shook his head, clenching his teeth as he hissed to his dragon. "No, Zef. I can't hear this. I recognize their faces. I remember them all from the Post. Dear gods, I remember!" Valin thrust his finger out at a man in the crowd. "He spat on me, saying that I killed his little girl. And there—" Valin made to thrust his finger again, but Zefir lifted his wing to block out the sight of the crowd. "That woman told me if I were to die before her very eyes that it would be the happiest moment of her life, because I took her mate from her. I've seen them all. I've listened to them all before. And I can't. Godsdamn it, I can't fucking listen to them."

Zefir exhaled slowly. "Because they cursed your name as the enemy? Or because you don't want to remember their losses?"

Breath caught in his throat, he wasn't certain if he knew the answer.

"Valin," Zefir said softly, curling his wing tighter about him though it must pain him. "No one would blame you for not accepting their thanks. Least of all me. I trained many of them, even knowing that my lessons would help kill Navs of our own Clan. When I see them, I will have to remember that their fight today killed many of ours who simply thought that they were in the right, and that the firebomb would protect our people once and for all."

Valin placed his wounded hand carefully around Zefir's stitches. How many scars would they both have? How many would never fully heal?

Zefir gave him his warm, yet tried smile. "Perhaps, my Navigator, some of their thanks will outweigh their losses in your mind. Perhaps the curses too."

"I won't forget their losses," Valin said, staring at the cooling-wire veins that had been moved. Those spots would now heat unevenly in the air. Uncomfortably so. And then it occurred to him that he had naturally assumed they would fly together again. "I can never forget them."

"I'm not suggesting you ever forget them. Or your own losses." The dragon seemed to notice his rapt attention on the wounds over his brass flesh, and puffed a warm breath in his face. "But if you want to deny their thanks because we both sacrificed for them, then you must remember why it is we did so. Let them name those that were saved, where before they named those that were lost."

Zefir tucked his wing back to his sides, and Valin saw once again the rust-colored burns over his arms, part of his neck, and bits of his chest where the chemicals had doused him. Valin turned to the rest of his squad, and asked, "What do the rest of you say?"

Jarre shrugged, tossing up his hands. "I've nothing better to do. And if I get bored listening to them, then well, hells, I'll take a nap."

Innari growled lowly in her throat. "No sleep for you, Jarre-kin. Not with that concussion."

"Then sit with me, moon dragon, and guard me against sleep." Jarre flicked her nose with his finger, and she snorted at him. He glanced at Valin. "I'm going to go sit down. These old bones are tired. Crashing a flyer will do that to you. See you, wing runner." With that he walked into the tent, and Innari followed after him, eye narrowed suspiciously.

Ferrei crossed her arms over her chest. "Where Innari goes, I go too. It's the only vow remaining that I haven't broken. But that doesn't mean I wish to listen to Wheelteeth's gratitude. I know all of those from our Clan in the healing tents, and I can't pretend that those standing before you didn't harm them. And killed many more that have now flown to the sundisk." She walked forward and placed her large hand on his unwounded shoulder. "You don't have to listen either, Valin."

Valin glanced at the crowd, remembering the tears he couldn't wipe away while on the Exile Post. "I think I do, Ferrei." For them as much as for myself.

His Second grunted, and turned to disappear into the tent, sparing only a moment for Kirwen. Lowly, Ferrei said with a fierce battle-grin that was anything but pleasant, "Would you like to give me your thanks, Wolf Leader? Because I'll gladly shove them down your throat until you choke on them. And maybe while I do, Nyru will smile down at me from the sundisk."

Kirwen stared at her, expression mild. "My thanks are given by releasing you as my prisoner."

"No," Ferrei barked, trembling. "Our First Leader freed us. Remember that you fucking wolf-bitch. Come near my squadron again and you'll see what Quarethstra vengeance looks like. Watch yourself while you sleep."  

Kirwen nodded seriously, and turned to walk away. The crowd parted for her, allowing her passage.

Zefir gestured acceptance to Atsuke Xei, and as Valin and Zefir turned to retreat back into the tent, the crowd formed a line—just like on the Post—and came forward one by one.

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