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Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #33: Dissenting Voices

Zefir glided on the updrafts, feeling his wing membranes stretching differently with the stitches holding on to the flesh; a few places along the length of the wound were overly hot. But after being on fire, maybe it wasn't the worst sensation. His chest muscles flexed beneath the painful burned flesh, and he had to fight hard not to land, curl up in a ball, and wish he'd stayed with his squadron.

He thought he'd heard a wisp of Innari's thought-voice searching for him, but having practiced keeping Kirwen away from his true feelings, he shielded himself from her mentally. The land below cruised by at an almost leisurely pace, the thick, dark forests of the Wheelteeth's lands mixing with the rocky plateaus near the Burned Stone.

And he caught sight of hawkling scouts cruising at an altitude far above; one dived toward him, and he wondered if the scout would open fire. He recognized the symbol on the side as from the Second Wing of his full squadron—formerly Ferrei's domain. And the Nav lifted a fist in the descend, land gestures.

Feeling he was pushing his luck, he flew on, barely able to fly much higher than the treetops. Not for the first time did he wonder why Mother made him unable to fly to his utmost without a Navigator. At first glance it seemed a crippling flaw. And perhaps it was...but as a newly minted creature he'd waited for his proven Nav, and when he'd chosen Valin, Zefir hadn't considered being without him. But we're stronger together.

But he knew his decision to leave his Navigator behind was the right one.

A second hawkling buzzed passed his nose, precariously close. A warning. And its Nav flickered battle signs at him. Land. Or engage.

There was no sign for Inventrix, not even in the Nav's elegant hand-speech. But he signed, hoping they could see his large dragon hands: Meeting with your Leader. Then in the battle-sign: Escort this flyer.

The flyers hesitated, he could see them loop around a second time, before they fell into place on either side of him, far enough away to avoid a physical strike, or even his flame. The first hawkling pushed ahead of him, leading the way.

They flew over the glassy top of the Burned Stone, and on the other side of the plateau in the distance, the scrub brush gave way to another dark forest. Within he saw—what? Eight full regiments of Riders and their coghorses, no nine. And two squadrons and their grounded flyers arranged around them. Several station tents were arranged in the semi-half circle of organized chaos, where Firsts could meet to organize their people, and lay out the end battle plans. Riders and Navs milled about in a way they rarely comingled in the past, but they moved like those nervous to start the fight. As the hawklings drew to land at the nearest unmarked tent the same size and shape as all the others, he could hear something tingling against his heart-mind.

Images of fire entered his mind unbidden. The heat of the crucibles spilling below—the walkway too hot, too hot! And Varess...

Zefir shook himself. Of course. The virul-microcogs the mirrors shared were part of Mother as well. With a great effort he came to land, backwinging as he unshielded his mind from such intrusion. And nearly collapsed as—

The X, the damned X...gouge it in all flesh. Mark them as mine. As traitors. The Navigators I bred failed me, such blood shame. And I could've ended this, ended it all...such pain. To save them. But they failed...no I failed. My greatest failure yet, and now I may not live long enough to see the true battle that comes.  

And Zefir grimaced as he walked closer to the tent, but kept his heart-mind precariously open to the maddening stream of conflicting thoughts.

Slowly, she became aware of his presence. Kirwen? Are you prepared to die in the duel—?

Mother burst through the flap of the tent, baring her judge's blade on her hip and wearing the black-on-black high collared uniform of an Inventrix called to sit in judgment. She blinked at him, and Zefir couldn't hold back on a low, despairing keen. Her hair was matted, as if left unkempt, and he could see the hollows of her cheekbones; but her eyes—they held a luster, gleaming too bright, as if unwilling to completely leave the realm of her tattered thoughts. He could feel her confusion press against him, her stuttered thought process.

They stood like that, suspended without moving.

"Mother," he managed to whisper. He fought back on tears.

She blinked at him, as if fighting to study whether he was real or not. She barked, "No." And she spun about to walk back into her tent, disappearing from view.

Such dismissal twisted inside of him, the now familiar coldness making him shudder. I'm her child...But the coldness changed, became an elemental fire that made his burns throb and his wings pulse and ache in syncopation. The fire built within him until he wondered if he would be able to release a jet of white-hot flame. Gritting his teeth, he reached for the edge of the tent; and he wrenched it from its pole, the tent stakes flying into the air as he threw the entire tent over his shoulder. It flew until it crashed into the nearest station tent, those within crying out.

Mother was sitting in a camp chair, not even looking at the fact that she was now exposed; she pressed her hands to her temples, eyes squeezed shut, muttering to herself, "It isn't him, my child is dead. This is a memory remnant only. It isn't him. It isn't. Don't open your eyes. Just a memory specter that bears the burns of his death..."

And suddenly it was as if he was drawn into her memory, seeing the inside of the Beast's head, her motions assured—she had created this monstrous flyer. But she watched the battle below, knowing nothing could stop it or its inevitable cargo. And she would force herself to watch the carnage it would wreak on those wildings below—her children of long ago no longer—so it would be one of her last memories, so she would die knowing that her Clan and all her children would survive. But she caught the glint of brass. The great brass flesh of her true child, the only creation she cared about as he flew upwards—

Zefir saw himself falling from the sky on fire.

"Mother," he said again, stepping toward her. He glanced to the side and saw several Riders with arrows nocked but not pulled. Uncertain.

"Gods," she whispered. "Why do you have to torment me with his voice?" And tears squeezed from the corners of her tightly closed eyes, falling over her hollow cheeks.

His stolid, immovable Mother weeping. He never thought he'd see such a thing.

He glanced at the Riders, and at the Navs even now with their pistols half raised. If it was to be, then it was to be. Zefir walked forward and nudged his nose against her arms, nearly knocking her from her chair. Her eyes flew open in surprise to feel his specter touching her, and she lifted her hands, trembling. Zefir opened his wings wide, and reached toward her with them. Her eyes focused on the stitching in his wings, and her mouth contorted in fury, eyes flashing. "I never would repair him so poorly. Be gone remnant. I know you to be false."

Perhaps the only way to reach her was through her constant Inventrix's need to repair and alter. He was her greatest creation. "Yes, the stitching. It hurts, Mother. My wings feel too hot now, because the cooling veins had to be moved. Can you repair it?" Her eyes narrowed fixedly on the gash in his side, and rose to her feet in one fluid motion. Zefir said, "Mid-air collision. Do you have more of that flesh-growing salve? Like you made after my first crash?"

"I told that Nav of yours that he was a fool for not reigning you in," she said, eyes still fixed on his many wounds. "But I can see now that such a task must have been nigh on impossible. You were always the fiercest of us all, little one."

Little one. Those words struck him, wrenching the cadence of his steady heart-mind. His eyes grew too warm with tears—how he was able to cry when he felt conflicting sensations of hot and cold he didn't know. They almost seemed to scald his face as they cascaded down his nose. "Mother, I'm alive. Please. I need you. Help me."

"I'm dying," she whispered. "And you're proof, remnant."

Kirwen was right. If he couldn't even speak to her logically, how could he convince her to give up on the war? In this moment he almost didn't care about the war, or the battles to come. He wanted his Mother back, for her to help him, to speak to him about all the things he'd asked about when newly created. To teach and assure and—

Why do people die? He'd once asked her in his innocence.

Because it is their time, she'd answered. And we never know when that is. Even I don't. And neither will you.

"Mother," he said from between his tears, "why do people die?"

She stared at him as she had then with that faint hint of hesitation. The same look Valin had that suggested whatever he said might forever shape Zefir as he grew. Slowly, something clicked within her mind, and she focused on him. Truly saw.

But her mind still moved. You've our virul-cogs, haven't you?

She was thinking logically again. He could feel it. And a great wave of relief overcame him, so that he found himself crying harder. Sobbing. And he didn't know why. Or why he couldn't stop himself. I do. Seren gifted them to me before she...

"Because she didn't want you to be alone."

"Yes," he said, inhaling a shaky breath.

She regarded him, studying him with a critical eye; her expression was remote. Unreadable. He almost wanted to cheer. But instead another sob shook his chest.

"And now," she said coldly, "you're Kirwen's creature."

The cold tone surprised him. Anger surged. "I'm no one's creature. I'm my own dragon."

Her tone didn't change, but he heard her choke as she said, "Then why would you turn against your own Clan?"

He was aware of those around them, the Navs and Riders. The fighters for the Clan he'd called home. The ones he'd sworn to protect. What could he say—to them? Some of the may have even fought in the battle for the firebomb, may have watched him rip apart the hawkling.

He raised his voice, telling himself that he wouldn't answer purely in the realm of his thought-voice out of guilt. All must hear and judge him. "When I was younger, you said that it was my choice, and I could choose whether or not to fight for those I loved. Because you told me I was capable of love, as if I didn't already know I loved you. You said I had a choice to fight for the people and my home, or to go elsewhere. To find my own way." He swallowed, feeling the eyes of so many of his Clan weighing on him. "What I didn't know then is that I was capable of loving and fighting for more than just one people. For the children that squealed when I stuck my tongue out at them. For the Elders that tottered along on their canes, and for their wisdom. For the wounded, the sick, and helpless."

Zefir lifted his head, and looked at all of those around him. Mother remained silent, her eyes dark.

"We're all sick from this war," Zefir said, his voice raising in strength. "Sick from the shadowfall we pretend doesn't exist. Sick from the loss, from of our loved ones gone. The Cog Clan is sick. The Wheelteeth Clan is sick. And we can't heal from this. Neither of us can. Not while we still fight, not while the losses keep happening. My own First Leader sacrificed herself for the remainder of my squadron. I've seen many more do so in the air. I...tried. And part of me wishes I had died as I did so, because I can't...I can't bear it any longer." 

Her mouth firmed into a thin slash on her face. The face of an Inventrix, and one called to judge. "And you think you're not a traitor now? Because you believe that saving the enemy was right?"

"I believe that watching their children dying in flames was a greater atrocity than stopping you. Than harming..." he swallowed around the feeling of not gaining enough breath, "than killing men and women from my own Wing. It wasn't a matter of numbers. Or that the Wheelteeth are the enemy. The helpless are not the enemy. The innocents are beyond harm."

Her eyes burned into him, and he had to fight to keep his eyes raised. "Do you think that they haven't harmed our innocents in the past? That they haven't razed our fields when the Harvesters were planting the spring crop?"

"And you've burned their crops. And you've ignited their forests." Zefir stomped forward, his dragon feet a thunderous thump against the soil. "When does it stop? When will the endless fighting end?"

Fury suffused her face. Something deep inside of Zefir wanted to shrink from such evidence of his Mother's wrath. His Inventrix. Creator. 

"It ends," she snarled, "when they're all dead."

His mouth opened, aghast. Words wouldn't come. Not when he watched her entire body shaking from the ferocity of her vengeful hatred.

Quietly, Zefir said, "You're wrong. This ends when everyone is dead. When generations from now," and he swung his head around to speak to those in the crowd around him, "your children's children are fighting and dying. When their children die in battle. When they leave infants at home, motherless, fatherless."

"The firebomb would've saved them all," said his Mother again in that cold, implacable tone.

"And would it have saved those Wheelteeth children?" he countered, curving his neck down to stare her in the eye. "Would you have truly watched them burn?"

The darkness in her eye deepened, and her stance firmed. But he could see the haunted mien behind her granite features. "I was prepared to. And instead I watched my own child, my little one, flying against me. Against the Clan he swore allegiance to. Flew with. To save the bedamned enemy." She shook her head. "I don't know how, but my mirror turned you against me. And I have one more reason to kill her."

The fury flew deep into his heart mind, until he felt his breath heat. Frustration beat against his insides along with the desperation. "You two and your disgusting vengeance. Your narrow view that only extermination will end the conflict. For such elder beings, you act as children yourselves. Peace is the answer. But neither of you will consider it. You, the fucking bedamned leaders, and you lead us into death while you live on for your two centuries."

"You don't understand, child," she said. And it was in that same exact tone that Kirwen always spoke to him.

"Don't you dare say such a thing," he growled. One of the Riders fully drew back on his arrow as Zefir's voice rumbled so violently he knew they could all feel it in their chests. "You think I haven't been marked by all the death? Do you think me so innocent, so naïve that I can't remember Denaru falling from the sky? Screaming as he kissed the ground? Or Nyru's remains? I still see her when I close my eyes. Or the hawkling I held in my hands as I tore it apart? You made me to learn and grow. And learn I have. I understand perfectly, Mother. Even with my limited battle experience, I've seen enough fighting and death for ten lifetimes. And so have your people. My people. All of them. Be they Cog or Wheelteeth, all you fragile little humans. You deserve peace."

Mother still regarded him, her expression impenetrable. "You are still naïve, little one. You think peace is the answer. That their hatred won't rise again and turn against us. But you're wrong, my stubborn child. We've brokered peace before. One hundred years ago. And in a matter of two years, they attacked, breaking the peace, and killed a group of our Riders. I still bear their names—" and she tapped her temple, "—here. And I swore I wouldn't forget them."

Zefir should've been startled that there was more history he had never learned, but he wasn't. "And you never tried again? Did you think that peace was easy? That it wasn't something you should fight for?"

Mother sliced her hand through the air. "Enough of this nonsense. I'll hear no more."

Zefir leaned down and grabbed her up into his hands, folding his wings about them both; he cried out as a single arrow buried in the mechanical muscle of his shoulder, and he could feel his equivalent of blood pouring down his brass flesh. But no more arrows came when Mother shouted for a halt. Already the pain was distant, all the physical, for none of it mattered. Not now. He turned his head to use his teeth to pluck the small arrowhead from his flesh, and spat it on the ground.

She looked up into his face, lines of pain at her brow. "You would kill your maker?"

"No," he said, choking. "How could you think—?"

"Because you're a traitor." Her lips firmed in a line, and her eyes grew cold. Judging. Weighing. "My own child. My creation. And you've turned against me." Something in her eye shifted, burning too bright, and he sensed from their virul connection that her thoughts were a painful fury. An unstable confusion. "Like Kirwen. Like Valin. Like those who left to form the Wheelteeth. All of you, you always turn against me. What have I done that you all would hate me so much? I fight for you, I would willingly give my life for you all, my children, my wards, and yet comes the hatred. The hate!" She struggled to focus on the broad expanse of his face. "Even my own creation hates me."

"Mother I don't hate you." Zefir almost wished that he did, for hating her was easier than understanding. "I hate your actions. But you can change those. You can help us all by negotiating once again for peace—"

"There can be no peace!" she shrieked. "They'll kill you all, my wards. My only reason for existing is to lead, and keep you all safe." She thumped her breast with a fist so hard that Zefir wanted to shake her. "I was made to protect. How can I do that if they still live after I'm dead? They'll destroy my Clan. My people."

She was shivering...no they were tremors. Like Kirwen's. He didn't want to set her down, but she was nearly convulsing in his hands. He placed her on the ground, holding her aloft as she trembled. Slowly, the tremors stopped, but her mind sped to the past—

She stared down at the men and women, her people, their faces aglow in fierce anger. They were shouting at her as she sat here on the judge's pedestal, wearing the uniform that Varess had worn. The cloth itched against her at the thought that this regalia had been close to her tormenter's skin—the same exact skin as her own.

And there was Kirwen at the front of the crowd, her eyes burning in such disgust. "Let us form a Council, Mirena. The people wish to have a say. Some bloodlines no longer wish to be bred. You are young and untried as our Inventrix—"

"But I am your Inventrix," she snapped. "Is that what you wish to be, Wen? The ultimate Leader of our people without the tools ingrained in you for the task? Or the ability to better the Clan through invention?" She took in the sight of Seren in her healing colors, standing next to those who were training her in the healing arts, the Palm sigil at her shoulder. "Or Seren? Who desires only learning and creation? Should she perhaps be our Inventrix? Our people call us Abominations, we three. And now they've chosen you?"

"I help them. Because none of we three are all knowing, Mir," Kirwen said, voice tight in frustration. "Our people have feared Varess's cruel domination for far too long. They wish to have a voice. You can grant them that."

Seren spoke, her eyes gleaming. "It is not a weakness to listen. Or ask for assistance, Mirena. The people are yours, yes. But you must remember that it's more important that you are theirs. They have a voice. Varess didn't let them speak. She silenced everyone. Even us. But you can give them their voice back. Hear them. Listen."

Zefir blinked, looking down at her face slack in remembrance. Slowly, she became aware of his holding her upright, and she clutched at him.

Softly, Zefir asked her, "Have you asked your children?"

She glanced up at him, eyes bloodshot. "What?"

"Have you asked those people dying for you what they want?" When her brows lowered, he pushed on, clutching her. "Have you asked your wards if they want peace?"

"I..." Mother shook her head, pushing against his large hands. "There were those that flew with me. They were all volunteers—"

"Not all wished this. I know that. One of your Riders told me of the firebomb's flight, because that Rider knew it was wrong. But they face only exile or the brand of traitor if they use their voices to speak up, to tell you that they want peace. That they too are tired of the death. You're not listening to the silent ones, because you've taken their voice."

She released his hand and stumbled away from him, stricken. "You use Kirwen's words against me? Ah, yes, I see. You're more fully hers than you realize."

"No, Mother, not Kirwen's words," he said. "Seren's. Your Two. The second of you, and the person either of you rarely listened to. And now that she's gone, neither of you will remember her."

"I felt her passing," said Mother, voice breaking. "Even at such a distance, her death was...like my own. I remember her, little one."

Zefir wanted to scream in frustration, but he curled his hands into near fists, his claws gleaming. "Then remember her words. Ask your people if they want this. Be their true leader, their Inventrix, and give them their voice."

She straightened her back, and took several steps away from him. Mother turned to those around her, many of them First Leaders and the most elite of her squadrons. "What say you, my people?"

The Riders crowded closer, and the one who had shot at Zefir, an older grizzled veteran, met Zefir's eye without flinching. The First Leader turned to his Inventrix, chin raised, bow still in his hand. "I stand by our Inventrix. She will lead us to victory! The Wheelteeth will be damned to the ten hells when we're through with them!"

The others of his regiment cheered with him, chanting, "Victory! Victory!"

Mother smiled beatifically, and Zefir wondered if she was desperate to retain the appearance of her strength despite the obvious signs of her decay. And Zefir hated that he saw how far her body had degraded, and how far her mind had plunged toward the breaking point. Her every move appeared strong as she lifted her hands in Rider sign: Victory is yours.

Zefir raised his voice above the roaring chant, his baritone thunderous, "And what of those who fear condemnation, Mother? Those who fear exile? Or the traitor's mark for disagreeing with you? Give them immunity and hear their pleas."

"Then I'll show you, little one, how wrong you are." Mother turned back to those assembled and lifted her hands; the regiment grew silent instantly. "Come, my people, speak to me. Speak of your fears! Let me hear your doubts as to our rightness. If you have any sympathies for the enemy, if you—"

"I do."

Zefir arched his neck to see a lone figure sidling through the crowd. He recognized her as Rider Rhin, and just since he last saw her, she looked haggard.

"Qinethi Rhin," said Mother without inflection. But her gaze narrowed.

Rhin bowed in deep obeisance. "Inventrix, I have doubts. Ever since I saw the firebomb you created, I've wondered. What gives us the right? What gods will smile upon us for murdering their children? Their Elders? There was a heavy disquiet that grew inside of me." She knocked on her chest with her archer's gloves. "There were others around me that cheered for this. But I couldn't cheer. There was only dread. We as a Clan would have slayed far too many innocents. And victory at such a cost surely isn't a victory." She paused, her back hunching as if to feel the weight of her bow in its holster. "If peace, as the dragon says, is possible...then we should fight as fiercely for that as we've fought to protect our own. Because peace will protect our own. And—"

"It was you," Mother said coldly. "The one Zefir spoke of. The one who told him of the firebomb's flight."

Rhin looked stricken, but she straightened her stance. "Yes, Inventrix. I told your dragon, knowing full well that he and his Navigator intended to stop you."

"Traitor," Mother growled. Her eyes were alight and a steady stream from her mind pounded against Zefir: Traitor, traitor, they all turn against me. Traitor!

"Mother, she has immunity," Zefir said, "you said they could air their fears—"

"I made no such promise for immunity." She turned to the girl, who firmed her lips, head straight forward as if waiting for inspection from a Leader. "You, Qinethi, you betrayed our Clan to a known traitor. To Seven Valin." Then more quietly to the girl, "You've been the little rat's lackey. I know you've been undermining me, just like Shiran has. And at her direction, no doubt. And now, dear girl, you'll pay dearly for that. Half our fighters heard you admit to it."

Zefir fluttered his aching wings in distress. "Mother, you can't."

She whirled around to him, bellowing, "By all the gods, I will do my duty to this Clan until my dying breath!"

With the unnatural speed of an Inventrix she moved.

She caught Rhin by the throat. The Rider's eyes widened, and she scrabbled at the iron-hold; Mother raised the judges dagger, and Zefir moved. Pouncing, Zefir grabbed Mother's entire body, not daring to tear her away from the Rider, knowing her grip was like stone. Still the dagger moved, and Zefir intersected its slashing path with a wing; the blade tore against the ruined part of his membrane and he released a roar. Mother was still gripping at the Rider's throat, eyes narrowed, her lips curled in a snarl. Rhin's eyes were bulging.

"Let go of her, Mother!"

Her eyes turned to him, but he knew his Mother was gone. "My little one is dead."

She released the Rider, and turned the dagger deftly in her hand—so fast even Zefir could barely track the movement. The end of blade plunged into the top of his hand. With a roar he released her, and she fell, extracting the dagger. But with the madness of her Inventrix strength she moved again, and Zefir flinched just enough as the blade sliced into the pseudo-metallic flesh of his jaw. Despair welled up inside of him. She couldn't kill him outright, but she could wound him enough to where he'd be immobile. And then...what would she do?

If he moved against her, the Riders would release all their arrows into him. If he flew away, Rhin would be at her mercy.

He backed away, wishing he weren't weeping. "Mother, please. Stop this."

Again that distant look in her dark eye. "My Zefir is gone. You turned against me." As he let out a despairing keen, her face contorted in grotesque madness before smoothing out, expressionless. "All traitors are dead to the Clan. You don't exist. My child, my poor, misguided child. How I loved you. I didn't think myself capable of it. I'm an Inventrix, and we don't love. It isn't possible."

She moved faster than he'd ever seen. She laid another slash across his jaw; but Zefir moved then—expanding his wings. She held the dagger and poised to throw it; Zefir launched himself toward Rider Rhin, grabbling her up into his hands. He lifted himself skyward—feeling all of the fire in his systems, the agony tight in his chest.

He roared as the dagger buried in the space of his back, almost between his wings—where the Navigator panel was part of his very flesh. Something cracked inside of him. There was more pain than even falling from the sky on fire. But he flew on with the doomed Rider in his grip, telling himself that his own Mother didn't just hobble him for good, that she didn't just sever his only connection to flight, to his Navigator. 

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