Dupresh ran until his lungs ached, his throat felt shredded raw, and his legs could barely support him. His neck was sore from craning above, but after he saw no more shadows of gryphon wings above, he forced himself to turn around and run back the way he came.
His kind had many sayings, but none of them prepared him for this—the way his heart sat in his throat, the rush of fear coursing through him. He had to return to the place he’d seen his squad disappear, that way he could try to track them, even though his knowledge of tracking was in theory only, not in practice.
He had to slow down; he didn’t even know how much time had passed. But it seemed like an eternity. So, he kept to trails where he could at least see a bit of sky, knowing that while he could see them, that the enemy could see him back. But he had to find them, his squadron. Tei’s hurt. And Nelai and Awan are in danger.
He paused, scenting the familiar tang of a warm flyer that had recently come to rest; while its engine cooled it had a particular smell he’d know anywhere. He hunkered down, opening his eyes as wide as they would go. It was downwind, so if the Wheelteeth Nav had landed near, he could triangulate where it was…approximately anyway. He had to move down, but move slow.
There. A flutter of a bird to his left, it startled and took flight. But not from his own movements.
Dupresh started to run. Panic sizzled inside, and made his weary legs pump. He glanced over his shoulder to see an outline of a man haloed against the sunlight. The man was thin, lithe, but quick. Du stared ahead, breaths rasping. But he caught sight of the man’s long shadow crossing his own, the hand reaching for his back.
He tried to leap to the side to avoid the hand, but he felt himself being jerked from his feet; he fell, weight atop him. Struggling, using his fists he struck out, but the man with his flight mask took the blows on the apparatus. The man grabbed Dupresh’s wrists, smelling of sweat and metal. And he wrenched Du painfully to his feet.
The man was shaking him. Speaking? He couldn’t answer; he didn’t know what the man said. And he couldn’t gesture with his wrists held tight. The flight mask wasn’t the grinning skull form of the Wheelteeth, but the same as the mask Dupresh had worn but hours ago.
The man was shaking him harder. Those eyes narrowed. Angry. He was speaking, he must be. Demanding that Du respond.
Desperately, Dupresh aimed his head and slammed it into the man’s own forehead. The man staggered back, releasing Dupresh; Du tried to turn and flee, his forehead throbbing, but before he turned completely the man withdrew an aeropistol and pointed it at his chest.
Du made the signal for: Mask off.
The man’s eyes narrowed again, and he gestured with the pistol.
Signing more emphatically, Dupresh said, I can’t understand you with the mask. Take it off.
The man shook his head.
Desperate, praying he wouldn’t be shot, he admitted, I can’t hear. Blood-defect. Take off your mask, or sign to me. I can’t understand your words. He didn’t know if Wheelteeth sign-speak would be unintelligible, or if the Wheelteeth could even understand him, but he had to try.
His enemy unhooked his flight mask and Dupresh recognized him as the lean man, this Kitsu who had argued with Zhandei. For a moment Du hoped that the man was here to rescue the squad—he was Cog Clan!—but reality slammed into him so hard that he couldn’t breathe.
“Damn it, boy,” Kitsu said, mouth twisting. “You need to run, but not back to the clearing.”
Dupresh tried not to blink in confusion. You shot at us!
“I didn’t. He did.” Kistu’s very fox-like face became sharper. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. All you children were supposed to flee back home. It’s gone all to the ten hells. But that son of a poorblood will come after you to hide what we did. You have to run. Find shelter. Hide yourself deep in the mountains. I’ll do what I can to keep him off your trail.”
Why should I trust you? Du demanded, slicing his hands through the air. The man might follow him to try and find the rest of his squadron.
“I didn’t want this,” the Navigator said. The crease of his brows made him look distraught, his sharp features stricken.
A flare of white-hot anger bubbled up through the fear that had been pushing him. Then what in the ten hells did you want?
Kitsu lowered his head, as if the weight of shame pressed him down hard. “To go back and finish the war how it truly should’ve ended. With the Wheelteeth begging for mercy before we annihilated every last one of them. This had nothing to do with you lowblood children—”
It had everything to do with us. He signed, We were sullying your precious blood-purpose, and now we must die for our crimes. Fuck you, Navigator.
Kitsu took an aerorifle strapped to his back, and held it pointed down at his side; he tossed the pistol down between them. Cautiously, Dupresh picked up the weapon, and felt the heft of it. It was heavy enough that he didn’t think it had been fired recently, so all bolts were there.
Dupresh wanted to lift the pistol. Never before had he felt the hellsfire burning inside, not like this, and he clenched his teeth from the need to fire the pistol into that body—yes, merely a body, not a person at all—until empty.
But first he would run like all the demons of the ten hells were after him.
Because they were.
Nelai huddled beneath the emergency blanket with Tei shivering at her side, so she pressed herself closer to the Nav girl. Her eyes tried to roam about the darkness of the cave, but even the sun’s light barely made it through the canopy and into the entrance, and in another half-hour it would be completely dark. The temperature had dropped quickly, and sitting on the freezing stone did little to warm them.
She could hear Awan pacing at the entrance, the glint of the hunting knife in his hand. Slowly, she untangled herself from Tei’s arms—she knew the Nav girl couldn’t sleep either—and rose to her feet, tucking the emergency blanket firmly around Tei’s side.
Her ears were so attuned to the slightest sound that Nel could hear Awan’s steady breathing like a cacophony. It had been hours now, and she should relieve him of his watch duty. She touched his arm, felt him jump, and saw the knife come up a fraction. She stepped as fully into the fading light as possible, and held out her hand for the blade. “I’ll take watch.”
He shook his head, biting on his cracked, windblown lips. His voice was a mere whisper, “You’re too small to fight them.”
“We can’t fight them. We run, just like Tei said.” When he frowned, she said, “Keep the knife, but you need rest. I’ll stand watch.”
He looked about to protest, when Tei’s sharp voice broke in, “Kameratsu, stand down. Nelai is on this watch.”
She sounded very nearly like their Trainer. Like a Second.
“I’m no longer a Kameratsu,” said Awan, stance rigid. “Please, don’t call me that.”
Nelai knew they had other things to concern them, but being without bloodline must be difficult to consider, even now. If Awan died, there would be no one to hold rituals or sing his soul to the afterlife…there were no kin to mourn him. To his blood he was dead the moment they stripped him of his line name.
Tei rose shakily to her feet, still wrapped in the emergency blanket, shivering. “Then as a Tanake born and bred, I gift to you my line name.”
Nelai held back on a gasp, but Awan’s intake of breath resounded. She could see the big Harvester was stunned, his mouth agape. Line names were given on birth and held until death; even when one became blood-bonded to another—not simply mates as Jarre and Zhan were, but those who chose and were chosen to bear children—they kept their own bloodline name, though the children of the union took the mother’s line.
But gifting a name…had it ever happened before?
Tei placed her hand on Awan’s arm. “If you’ll have it.”
“I-I…don’t know,” said Awan, “if that’s even possible.”
“Here and now it is,” Tei said firmly. “And that’s all that matters.”
Nelai flinched as she thought she heard a twig snap in the distant tree, and everyone went silent. Awan quietly pushed Nel back behind him, and as a group they stared out into the looming darkness, straining to hear the sound of their alarms—three sets of a small toolset strung on fishing wire between trees at three different distances. Nelai held her breath, hearing only her heart hammering in her chest.
The clanking of the metal tools made her heartbeat thrum in her temples, her face; her stomach lurched. That was the closest alarm. The one a mere hundred yards from the cave entrance. The last resort. She tensed to spring into a run, but her squadmates were frozen in place.
She heard a tapping at one of the trees. A woodeater bird? The tapping was rhythmic…
And familiar. It couldn’t be…
Awan tensed and he sprang forward, but not up the slope where they’d planed to flee, but downslope toward the alarm. Nelai burst out, chasing after him. She couldn’t scream at him to stop, not if it were truly the enemy. The big Harvester barreled forward with a speed she didn’t think the older boy possessed; it was frightening how fast he moved holding the hunting knife. But she would have to move faster. She used the downslope to increase her speed, and in the darkness she was worried she’d fall. But closer to Awan now, she gauged the distance and leaped for his knife hand.
She grasped it in both hands, and he turned, aiming at fist at her. His fist struck her across the jaw, before he squeaked, realizing who it was. She hugged his straining arm to her chest, pinning it.
“It’s Du!” she hissed. “It’s him!”
He must think her mad!
“Listen!” she insisted in a hoarse whisper. “It’s his tap code.”
Awan went still, listening. His breaths puffed in the frozen air, though he tried to hide the plumes that would give away their position. There was another rustle of fallen needles to their right, and she prayed she was right. No, she was right; Nel knew it with certainty. The tap said: I’m here. I’m here.
She disengaged with Awan, and moved forward, still keeping to the cover of trees. And she saw an outline—either hunching down, or small enough to be Dupresh. She wanted to close her eyes, but moved out in front of the figure.
If it wasn’t Du, then she was making a fatal mistake.
She saw the flash of an aeropistol raising and realized that she must be wrong.
Nelai hoped she could give her squad time to escape, and so she screamed, her voice piercing the thin air and bouncing across the granite rocks as she darted forward. Her sight tinged red as she leaped on the figure, reaching for the pistol with her hands in claws. Expecting to feel the fatal blow of a bolt, she kept screaming until a hand fell over her mouth.
The figure brought her to the ground, and rolled until she could see—
She stopped struggling as she stared through the darkness to that moon-round face. The fear flooded from her system, leaving her shaking; the red-tinge to her sight cleared. Nelai stared at him as if he were a figment. But his arms circled around her and drew her close, his embrace so tight she couldn’t breathe. But it didn’t matter. He’s alive! Alive!
A frenzied laugh burst from her as he drew away. She could see his broad smile in the darkness, but heard Awan approaching.
“Gods n’ ten hells,” Awan breathed. “We thought you were dead.”
She knew Dupresh couldn’t see lips in the dark, so she signed slowly, Squad is alive. Together.
By the look in his eye, she wondered if he’d embrace her again. Instead, he rose to his feet, and lifted her. Awan stood there, uncertain, but Dupresh gestured, and Awan slung a huge arm around Du’s shoulders and squeezed until the cleaner boy made a small squeak. Dupresh gestured, Squadron form up.
Together they sprinted as best they could in the deepening dark, and came to the cave entrance. Nelai called to Tei, hoping the scream she’d unleashed hadn’t caused the Nav girl to try to flee, which had been the intent. But Tei was hunkered down outside the cave, eyes alight as if she’d tear anyone who came at her limb from limb with her bare hands. She blinked in surprise when she saw Dupresh, but signed, About time you caught up.
She had never heard Durpresh laugh out loud, but he let out a low wheeze-sound of amusement.
Tei moved with them into the cave. She reached into their only pack, and withdrew the two separate vials of glow-liquid; when combined they offered a faint, greenish cast.
Nelai signed, Where did you get the pistol?
His expression darkened. From one of our enemies. He shook his head, and gestured to the world outside the cave. Our enemies are close. At earliest dawn, we move out. For now, I’ll stand watch.
Tei protested, “You can’t hear them coming. And it’s too dark to see.”
I’m First Leader. I must protect you.
Tei said softly, “You already did, Dupresh.”
Nelai could see how weary her friend, how dry his lips, how his entire body looked ready to collapse. He’d been running among the rocky hills all day without water. She reached out and threaded her fingers through his, and said awkwardly with one hand, Rest. I’ll be your eyes and ears.
He nodded, countenance serious. Slowly, he held out the aeropistol to her, and she let go of him to take it, hating the loss of the heat of his hand, the feel of his rough palm; she stuffed the pistol inside the pocket of her flight jacket, and watched him until he settled between Tei and Awan, drinking quickly at their store of water, but stopping himself short of two gulps. When they were finally huddled together beneath the emergency blanket—far too small for three people—Nelai turned back to the starless night and touched the pistol in her pocket.
Let the enemy come, she thought, chest tight with furious certainty. She would kill them all. And her squadron would be safe. She gritted her teeth against the red-hot sensation of fury inside. You’ll pay, traitors. I’ll make sure of it.
The sun was just setting, and Jarre had to call his Inventrix to a halt. She blinked at him in surprise, and then peered around her. “Apologies, I didn’t realize you couldn’t see the path.”
Yet another unique aspect to her make. She’d pressed on all day at a pace that Jarre had found difficult to maintain, but he hadn’t complained. His feet were sore. Probably blisters. He had drank little from their stores of water before Shiran had insisted he take as much as he needed, for she could thrive longer without it. Likewise, Shiran insisted she only needed an hour of sleep to regain her energy, though she admitted reluctantly that vigorous exercise would increase the amount she needed, but could do without completely in “circumstances such as these.”
They came to an overhang dusted with snow, and Jarre began to scoop some of it into his canteen, hoping it would melt. Shiran glanced around, and without a word began bounding up the steep cliffside, before Jarre barked, “What are you doing?”
“I’ll stand watch above you,” she answered with that Inventrix calm. “I’ll have a better vantage point and a longer range to shoot.”
Again, she had a point. He would’ve even suggested it himself were his mind not clouded with the constant gnawing fear for his students. He had to focus. “Wait but a moment, Inventrix.”
She leaped back down to his side and regarded him with her usual manner of calculation that itched along his skin to be so scrutinized. He set the pack down—that he had insisted on carrying despite her wry insistence that she was stronger than she looked.
“Shiran,” he said, still feeling strange to be using her heart-name. Inventrixes had no bloodline name, they were simply Inventrix. “Why did you let me take the lead?”
She grunted, and plopped on the ground gracelessly like a normal girl of six-and-ten. “You have more experience.”
“An Inventrix is created to lead. It’s in your being. I rather doubt you can help it. Your predecessors certainly couldn’t.”
Even in the nearing dark he could see her eyes narrow at that. “And Jarre, that is part of it. When I became Inventrix of our Clan, I swore to all the gods that I would never create the same chaos as the Three did because I allowed my blood-traits to hold sway over me.” She let out a slow breath and it plumed in the air. “What happened here…I can feel the worst of those traits taking hold, and stronger than I’ve ever felt.”
He itched at the old traitor’s scar on his cheek. “So, you insisted I lead.”
“It’s more than that.” Her expression was so awkward that again she seemed no more than a young girl. “You know those of my kind have a possessive nature to those we see as ‘ours.’ That’s no different for me. Zefir calls it an ‘overprotective need.’ And when those blood-ridden traitors they—they…” She gritted her teeth.
They tried to harm her children. And Jarre realized that even he was included in that. He’d seen what viciousness her predecessors were capable of because their bond with their people was endangered.
His Inventrix met his gaze, and he nearly looked away from the cold fire burning inside those dark eyes. “I worry I’ll be unable to help myself. Like a wolf after prey, I might become so lost in the need for vengeance that I’ll put you in danger. Or the children when we find them. And yes, we will find them, because I truly can’t conceive of failing. My mind won’t register such a thing, not even in calculation.”
He nodded. “You need someone with a clearer mind.”
“Someone to stop me.” She looked truly frightening, the way she went still as a stone statue. “We need the traitors alive if possible.”
He saw the sense in that. She would have to bring them back to show the Clan how she dealt with those who turned against their own. Which would be difficult considering several members of her Council were exiled by her predecessor for being traitors themselves. Choosing their fates would show either that she was a cruel goddess unmindful of her people’s fears, or a stern yet fair judge.
“And you want to kill them,” Jarre said flatly.
She gave him a chilling half-smile. “You have no idea how much, Third Leader.”
“Oh, I’ve an inkling. Trust me.”
The half-smile disappeared, and her expression was remote. Cold. “Yes, I must trust you and your judgment, my Third.”
Jarre crossed his arms over his chest, leaned against the cold wall of rock. “Then wake me once you need your hour’s rest. Then we’ll set out just before dawn.”
The Inventrix nodded, sprang to her feet with the sinuous grace, and was half-way up the rockface before he said under his breath, “Sun help me if she thinks my judgment it sound.”
And he realized that even her sense of hearing was acute enough to have heard him.
Jarre had learned over the years how to fall asleep almost instantly; he’d learned it while waiting hours to launch from the battleground, while being cycled from the demands of the battle at hand, sleeping for no more than minutes before flying again into all kinds of hell. As he began to fall into that realm just before total sleep, he heard the hail of bolts raining down on him, heard the cries of his Wing. But those transformed in his nightmares to the screams of his students. He saw them falling from the sky just like his Wing had fallen…
He awoke suddenly to a hand over his mouth, and in his groggy state he nearly lashed out with his fists. Blinking, he saw his Inventrix’s face close, felt the unnatural power with which she pinned him.
“I’m sorry, Jarre,” she said. “I didn’t know you had shadowfall nightmares.”
He winced when she released him, his tongue a useless flap of meat in his mouth. His Inventrix knew now of his blood-shame. He looked away from her, but she touched his cheek with a single finger and turned his head in her direction.
“There is no shame in it, Jarre.” He had never seen her look so gentle, so understanding. “It doesn’t mean weakness.”
It was too cold out. That was the sting in his eye, certainly.
“This time,” he croaked, “it was the children.”
She sat down and leaned close to him, her side touching his. “Go back to sleep. If you are disturbed again, I’ll know and wake you. Rest now, Navigator.”
At sunrise, as if the sun itched along the underside of his skin, Dupresh awoke. Disengaging himself from his spot between Awan’s bulk and Tei’s frame, he rose. He approached Nelai, who still sat sentry at the entrance of the cave, her eyes darting to and fro with a disquieting intensity. She gripped the pistol, muscles tense, ready to spring.
He touched her arm gently, and she flinched. She wouldn’t turn in his direction. He couldn’t speak to her if she wouldn’t turn to him, so he stepped into her line of sight. Stand down, wing runner, he gave the battle signs for: Fall back.
Nel shook her head. “Not until the others are up and ready to leave.”
You’re exhausted. On edge. You wake the others, he signed. I’ll keep watch for a moment.
“No.” He could tell from the cant of her lips she’d said so firmly.
He was First Leader, and gods help him they were all counting on him. Though she was his best friend, he couldn’t have her second-guessing his actions, even if he was already second-guessing his own. NOW, wing runner.
Her lips trembled, but her expression went blank. “That’s what you said before you ran away from us. To save us. And I…I thought you were dead. I thought I left you there to die, and I can’t…I won’t let that happen again.” Her brows lowered in that stubborn determination she so often displayed. “So stuff your order.”
Dupresh remembered the terror of his run. All he could think was that if he fell, if they shot him, then they would start shooting the others. It kept his fear tight, his feet steady. Even when he ran to find them, the need to be with them kept him running long after exhaustion set in, long after his feet felt on fire from blisters in his leather flying boots.
He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. I made a choice. For you. For my squadron. It was the right choice, Nelai. Before now he hadn’t given her a sign-name, but now he did—a new combination of the signs for strong and fire.
“No it wasn’t the right choice, Dupresh, damn you.” He knew when people were emphasizing something angrily, because their lips tended to curl up. “You could’ve died. You’re no Leader! And you shouldn’t pretend you are!”
Her words stung, and he found his expression going blank, the way he’d been taught to do by his mother. His kind always said, ‘If they see nothing, they won’t bother thinking you’re worth spitting on.’
You mean, he sliced his hands, I’m not Leader, because I’m just a stupid scumlicker? The sign for that painful word made his hands ache; he wished he didn’t know the sign at all.
“No.” She signed the negative as she said it.
He could feel his cheek jumping; his lips wanted to curl up in vicious disgust. But it doesn’t matter, because this blood-defected scumlicker is going to get you to safety. Even if you curse my blood, I’m going to do all I can.
“Du, I didn’t mean—”
He turned to Tei who was busy trying to fold the emergency blanket back into its tiny bag; Awan likewise was looking elsewhere.
Dupresh angrily signed, Follow me. Or stay here if you think our enemies can’t find this cave as easily as I found you.
He paced out of the cave and spent several minutes focusing his anger on which of the barely visible trails they should take. One was steeper and more difficult, but would get them faster to where the forest thickened at higher altitude, while the other was a more gentle slope, easier to navigate, but would take longer. With Tei’s injured leg, it was unlikely she could keep up on the more difficult climb…but they had little time.
He saw a thin shadow to his right, so he turned. Tei signed with the elegance that born Navs seemed to use with hand-speak, Her words had nothing to do with your blood. Go easy on Nelai—she used the signage he’d given for Nel’s name but a moment ago. So the Nav girl had been watching. We had to pry her away from the clearing because she wanted to go to you. She doesn’t want to lose you again.
A tingle of guilt assaulted him through the low burning of his anger. But you think my blood makes me—
“No,” she said, expression creased in misery. “Those things I said before, I’m sorry. I know it’s not true. You were meant to fly, Dupresh.”
Dupresh shook his head to see her say such things, disbelieving.
She tried to smile, but it was wan. “And hells, you’re damned good at it. You kept that flyer in the air longer than I thought possible. I saw how many holes were in it.” She made the signs for: At your side, First Leader.
He had to think, had to act as First. I need my Second’s opinion. Can you keep up with the steeper trail?
She lowered her eye. “It requires a lot more climbing, and I don’t think…”
He touched her arm. You’re strong, but don’t overestimate your endurance. We move at your pace.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course.” She straightened her back. “I’ve taken some of the med-kit’s painkillers, but they’re not very strong. Realistically, I can’t do the steeper climb.”
Then we take the slower climb.
He looked behind him to see his squad forming up—Awan carrying the pack, and Nelai avoiding his eye as she held the pistol. He waved to gather their attention and said, Our enemies are of our own Clan. As none of them were astonished, they must’ve come to the conclusion naturally. The man who gave me the pistol is K-I-T-S-U, he spelled. While Kitsu claims he is warning us for our behalf, if we encounter him, we should consider him enemy. We flee from enemies. Or if forced we defend ourselves even if it means killing. He paused to allow that to sink in. Tei will keep the pistol, as she is the most experienced with aero-weapons and is the most vulnerable.
Dupresh glanced at the sky, hating that so much time had already passed. We move. Tei in the lead, me next, followed by Nelai and—he hadn’t named Awan yet, so he pointed until he could find an appropriate sign name. If any of us fall behind, we slow together. Understood?
Awan nodded. “Yes, First Leader.”
Nelai nodded, her mouth in that familiar line of intensity. “Yes.”
Now move, he said, and turned to follow behind Tei.