“Shit,” spat the Inventrix, stopping suddenly. “Fuck.”
Jarre didn’t think he’d ever heard her say such words, and part of him was surprised his Inventrix capable of it, as if she were some sun-kissed innocent.
“What?” he asked.
It was midday and they’d had to backtrack twice, Shiran sniffing and snuffling, opening her mouth to taste-smell the cold mountain air for Tei’s blood.
Her mouth twisted, her eyes burning in dark anger. “I lost the scent trail. It’s gone.”
Those words struck him like a physical blow. “When did you lose it?”
She didn’t hesitate. His Inventrix had been mapping out the area in detail. In her mind. A perfect three-dimensional copy. “The cave.”
“Where they stopped.” Learning that Tei at least had made it to the cave, likely with some of the others, made his fear turn into something deadlier. Hope. It could disable his decisions as assuredly as fear could.
His old Trainer had once said, Hope can fuck with your mind more than thinking you’re going to die.
But then again, maybe Tsavo didn’t know everything.
“Either Tei is no longer bleeding, or…” Shiran blinked, that cold calculation in her voice, “no, I would’ve scented if she was…gods, I can’t even say the word. It’s like that word doesn’t even exist in my mind.”
Her agitation had been growing, her pace grueling; her eyes glowed like all the hells were being restrained inside her with an iron will. He’d never seen his Inventrix unleash rage, or really allow any strong emotion to take her. Not in the Council chambers, not when she met with the Wheelteeth Elders. Jarre had worried Shiran was, while not seemingly devoid of emotion like Mirena—at least until her predecessor’s mind broke—then she wasn’t exactly possessed of the same group of emotions that spurred normal beings.
How wrong he’d been. And he wondered if perhaps Shiran had believed the same.
“Inventrix,” he said sharply as she made her second pacing circuit. She stopped to regard him with those obsidian-colored eyes. “You’re not them.”
She touched the arrows at her side, picking up one by the nock and letting it drop back into the quiver with a soft thump. “Good gods, are you trying to school me like some wayward youth?”
“I’m saying that you’re not your predecessors. And you shouldn’t fear becoming them—”
“It’s you who should fear me, Third Leader.” She rushed back to him with astonishing speed; she jabbed a finger in his direction. “In that split-second that I moved, I’d already pinpointed the three easiest ways to kill you. And this—this thing inside of me, it’s horrible. I feel like a monster. Like I can’t control it.”
“Like the Three didn’t.”
“Like they couldn’t,” she whispered wretchedly. “What if that’s happening to me?”
“Shiran,” Jarre said carefully, “you’ve just realized that there are more emotions you’ve never felt, or perhaps have felt, but never so strongly. You’re young and still finding out about yourself.”
“I’m an Inventrix,” she stated with a condescending glare. “Not an idiot child.”
He managed, though barely, to contain his amusement; he had no doubt she could see it in the micro-movements of his cheeks anyway. “Intelligence that isn’t tempered by experience is not wisdom.”
Shiran blinked. He didn’t think he’d ever see an Inventrix surprised. “You’ve read the writings of the First Inventrix?”
“When you made them available to the whole Clan, yes, I did. And now that’s something none of your predecessors have ever done. Our true histories have been hidden by those who should keep it pure, yet twisted that knowledge for their own gain. But you’ve made it clear by your actions that you’re nothing like them.”
She let out a slow breath, and studied him with newfound interest. “I’m worried that will change. That I’ll slip, just once. And I’ll fall, twisting to become a despotic ruler, or worse, a cruel all-powerful goddess.”
Jarre wanted nothing more than to throw an arm around her shoulder and squeeze her to his side. Maybe even muss her hair as if she were far younger. “Just remember, Shiran, that there are people who will remind you who you are.”
Again, she seemed like an uncertain, untried adolescent. “I’ll make certain to keep them close.”
He looked up the trail. “We keep on the same trail. We guessed that with Tei’s injury they would take the easier climb and—”
Shiran held up her fist in the signal for halt. She hunched her lithe shoulders as if at any moment she would go on all fours and bound away in the forest like a wolf unleashed. Slowly, she signaled: Enemy close.
He hunkered down, peering around and wished he had more to defend himself than a simple hunting knife. At once she nocked an arrow to her bow, and quiet as a specter began to move forward, passing from granite boulder to boulder. Sniffing, she signaled: Two points downslide. Single attacker.
He heard flechette fire, retorts from an aerorifle; he paused, flattening himself against the nearest boulder, seeing sparks fly from the impacts of flechette on rock. But he watched as, lithe as a cat, the Inventrix leaped upon the nearest boulder—leaving herself open!—and let fly with an arrow. A single flechette pinged against the area between her feet before she fell beside him, panting.
Enemy hit? she signed.
Damn her. Jarre couldn’t allow her to scamper about putting herself in clear danger. Ground maneuvers were not his strong point, but then again, neither would it be for the Navs shooting at them.
They had to retreat. They were quite literally outgunned. He flicked his hand in a signal for fallback, and rose to a hunched position, expecting her to follow. But her eyes were narrowed in the direction of the enemy, and with only a steadying breath, she leaped over the side of their dubious cover and ran faster than a galloping coghorse. Cursing, tasting his bedamned heart in his mouth, he sprinted after her; a single bolt whizzed by his body so close he could feel the wind of it. But Shiran let loose a series of arrows, and Jarre saw the shadow of their enemy. One of the arrows imbedded in the trunk of a tree near the man’s shoulder; the next twanged perilously close to the man’s ear, before the aerorifle lifted and—
Jarre hefted his only weapon, knowing that the Inventrix was too open a target, even as she expertly nocked another arrow. And he hurled the hunting knife at his far distant target, and heard the surprised bellow; Jarre sprinted in that single heartbeat and tackled his wayward Inventrix, rolling with her behind the nearest outcropping.
A single shot echoed near their feet. But Jarre held tight to his struggling Inventrix, even as she unleashed a rage-filled scream. For a moment he was certain she would strike him, forgetting that he was an ally.
Head thudding, he listened, desperate to hear if their attacker would rush upon them. But the running footsteps retreated, disappearing. Slowly, he untangled himself from Shiran and she leapt to her feet, poised to give chase when he grabbed her arm. Hard. He jerked her back, feeling the tension in her muscles.
“No, Inventrix,” he barked. “You’ll not give chase.”
She tore her arm from his grip with little effort—gods, how eerily strong she was. Spittle flew from her lips as she snarled, “Godsdamn you, you blood-ridden fool! I had him in my sights, I could’ve—”
“Gotten yourself killed,” he answered back with the anger of a Third. “You promised me, Shiran. Promised you would follow my lead. I told you to retreat, and you nearly killed yourself.”
Her eye blazed, but her mouth worked silently. Realization deflated her fury. “I-I…thought I had him.”
“And you may have,” he said, “but at the cost of your own life.”
She trembled, holding her cam-and-pulley bow tighter by the grip. “Gods have mercy…my own safety didn’t matter to me, only finding…the enemy, only…”
“Killing him?” As she struggled, like one awakening from a muddled dream, he focused on rote facts for her. “Do you know who it was?”
She swallowed. “Kerlan Xennar.”
His First Leader’s bloodline. Were she still alive, Nyru would be ashamed to learn of her blood-kin’s treachery. For his First Leader had made the ultimate sacrifice for her squad, her Clan, and this man’s actions mocked that sacrifice.
“And now the enemy knows for certain that we’re alive,” he said.
She barked out another stream of curses, some fairly inventive ones. “I’ve fucked this to the ten hells.”
“With a demon’s giant cock, Inventrix.” Jarre peered in the direction Kerlan had fled, and moved to retrieve his hunting knife where it had stuck in the tree instead of the man’s gut. “Or perhaps not. It’s clear that their true target was us. Maybe if we play dragon-chase with them, they’ll follow us rather than the children.”
“We can’t be sure of that.” She hefted the bow, still leaning toward the enemy—toward her prey, but turned to him with an effort. “What’s more is we don’t know if all three of them will give chase. We can’t bet your squadron’s lives on playing games with the traitors.”
Unless he and Shiran split apart…but he knew he couldn’t unleash his Inventrix on the traitors. Not if they wanted them alive—or well, at least a couple of those blood-ridden pieces of shit alive. Maybe just one?
He could see her drawing the same conclusions. “While I yearn for nothing more than to chase them, it’ll only lead to ruin. Theirs as well as mine. I think that’s obvious now. But know that if we come upon them harming the children…” her dark eyes grew colder than the ancient glaciers on the mountain, “then I’ll slaughter them all, even at the cost of my own life.”
“If we see that, Inventrix,” he growled, “then so will I.“
Nogatare Kitsu could feel the churning in his stomach, that fearful gnaw that told him yet again his ancestors would judge him accordingly.
“That demon-bitch nearly got me,” Xennar growled.
And you will have deserved that fate, Kitsu thought, as have I.
“You should be more afraid, Xennar,” Kitsu said smoothly, tossing his flight scarf to the man to wrap his wounded leg, deep enough to scar but not deep enough to maim. “If she had been trying harder, she would’ve killed you. Instead, our young Inventrix means only to drag us back home to either put a bolt in our head in front of the entire Clan, or let us die of thirst on the Exile Post while our own blood-kin spit on us.”
“I almost had her,” Xennar barked, rubbing at the scars around his eyepatch, which he plucked from his head and threw in the burbling creek nearby. The missing eye was puckered, the skin sagging into the empty hole.
“We should split up.” Kitsu normally would’ve prayed for the sun’s rays of protection whenever he flew on a mission, but he couldn’t bear to even consider uttering such words. Not for this. “I’ll keep searching for the lowblood squadron. You…stay away from them.”
Xennar tied the scarf tight, grunting. “It was Tsavo that tried to kill the lowbloods, Kitsu, not me. Sun preserve us, he was only supposed to graze them.”
“The sun won’t listen to us now,” said Kitsu darkly. “Or our ancestors. We’re no longer destined for the light of the sundisk, but the pits in the tenth hell.”
Xennar squinted, searching Kitsu’s face, an expression that made the wing runner look old and weary, rather than hearty and battle-scarred. “You think Tsavo will kill the lowbloods, not just capture them.”
“I’m glad you’re not as big an idiot as I thought you, Xennar.”
The man looked down at his bloody hands; his puckered, eyeless hole narrowed as he raised his eye to Kitsu. “The Inventrix needs to die, her weakness is killing our Clan. But the lowbloods…I fought the war since I was old enough to spit, and hells, as much as I hate them trying to fly, I wouldn’t…” He made an offhand gesture of remorse. “I bled in the war to keep our Clan’s children safe.”
As did I, Kitsu thought.
As much as Xennar was a simple type of man—fight, kill, sleep, repeat—Kitsu knew he wasn’t truly an idiot. The man’s voice lowered, gravelly and coarse, “He’ll kill you, Kitsu. You can’t save them, not if he’s looking for them.”
Kitsu hefted his rifle, but the old wing runner stared at him steadily. “I’m not as weak as I look.”
The man shook his head. “You never fought with Tsavo when he was a First. You never saw what he was capable of in the air. He tried to kill the enemy by smashing his flyer into them when he was out of bolts, so many times that they started calling him ‘wrecker.’ He knows no bounds other than his mission. His battle. He would willingly die over and over to keep our Clan safe—”
“Even if it means killing children of our own Clan?”
That sunken, eyeless hole stared at him. “Don’t ask questions you know the answer to, First Leader.”
He wasn’t a First, not since the war ended. No, not since he lost his squadron.
Kitsu glanced toward the watery light of the sun through the trees, wondering if the light of his deity would burn him to ash for his crimes. “If you kill the Inventrix and Quarethstra Jarre, there’s still hope that when the Clan comes searching, they’ll think it the work of the enemy.”
Then the battle would begin anew, and this time there would be no Wheelteeth left to worry over. No reason to fear the Cog Clan wasn’t safe from the hands of those vile demons, those hellish beasts that knew only how to murder. How to torture. But no, his Clan would murder them all first, he was certain of it. The way it should’ve been.
No more so-called peace. Peace that would end when the enemy’s honorless natures rose again. Like they always would.
Kill the murdering, torturing beasts once and for all.
Tei’s lips were pressed together so hard they appeared bloodless, but Nelai said nothing when the girl quickly signed: I’m well. Clearly a lie. And one their First Leader didn’t believe for one moment, sweat streaming from his broad forehead, disappearing even as the cold winds blew off the mountainside this high on the trail. The winds battered at them, stealing breath and moisture; her mouth was dry, and she desperately wished to eat the snow to save herself from thirst, but it only made her colder. So cold she couldn’t stop shivering until Awan peeled his huge woolen flight scarf from around his neck and wrapped it around her shoulders, shrugging as she protested.
They would have to make a fire sooner rather than later, if for nothing than to drink and get warm.
Maintain position, Dupresh signaled, hiking up the trail to Tei in the lead.
Tei closed her eyes and shook her head, but opened them again as Dupresh touched her arm, signing, We rest.
“I can go on,” she growled.
“Hells,” Awan drawled in his Harvester way, “Maybe you can keep going, Stone-Steady Tei, but I’m resting my cold ass down on this cold ass blood-ridden rock to make my ass even colder.”
Her eyes flashed. “We need to keep moving, wing runner. Cold ass, tired ass, it makes no difference, but we move.”
We need rest, all of us, Du signed, and Nelai nodded in agreement. He smirked as he said, So sit your ass—and Nel had never seen the sign for ‘ass’ but laughed just the same—down and get rested with your squad.
Awan promptly plopped down on his rock, groaning, and shrugged the pack from his back. They hadn’t eaten from their meager rations, not yet, but Nelai’s stomach had been growling at her for several hours, though she ignored it. She heard Awan’s stomach do the same as she sat down next to him, pressing herself against his side to gather their warmth together.
Lumbering with her limp, which had been getting far worse, Tei eased herself down next to Nelai. The girl’s tiny frame shivered, until Nelai slung an arm around her, making rough strokes on the Nav girl’s arms to warm her. Awan, seeing this, grunted and drew them both closer, hugging them together. The warmth of him was comforting, and she relished the collected heat of their bodies, closing her tired eyes for a moment only.
Yes, but a moment…
Distantly, she heard a soft, sweet sound, and she opened her eyes blearily to realize that she’d dozed off still in the midst of Awan and Tei’s arms. The sound she heard was Awan humming, and this close to the Harvester she could feel it buzz through his chest.
Tei asked quietly, “What’s that song?”
Awan shrugged sheepishly. “Ah, just a song my blood-mother sang when she wanted me to sleep. I don’t even remember the words. Truth be told, I was hoping it would make you fall asleep too.”
“Nearly,” Tei admitted, smiling.
Nelai didn’t move from the realm of their warmth, but looked around for Dupresh. He prowled about the edge of the trail, not ceasing to move for an instant. She could tell he had mentally marked the trail, how far they had to go, and if there were any signs of danger. Alert. Ready. His eye cast about in all directions.
Tei watched him, and said, “We have a saying—”
“Gods, of course,” Awan interrupted. “Navs have a saying for everything. Got a saying for taking a shit?”
“Actually we do,” said the Nav girl, bemused, but her eyes were still serious. “But I’ll teach you that later. For now, we speak of Firsts. They say ‘First to rise with the sun, last to rest when the day is done; First to meet the sundisk when all is flown, First to greet you when you fly to your eternal home.'” She seemed to say to herself, “The always selfless, First.”
Nelai wasn’t certain what that was supposed to mean, so she shifted, hating that she lost the arms around her. “You’re thinking of taking First position from him.”
“No,” said the girl softly, “far from it. I was only thinking to myself I was a vain idiot for not seeing that the position was earned. Sacrifice is the mark of a First.”
Grunting, Awan said quietly, forgetting Du couldn’t hear, “You think he’s going to run out into the fire for us…again.”
“If he thinks it necessary,” said the Nav girl quietly. “And we’ll obey him in it.”
Nelai rose to her aching feet, shaking her head. “I won’t. I…can’t let him do that.”
Tei’s storm-grey eyes looked nearly silver, her frown deepening. “You will, wing runner, just as you’ll follow his lead if he tells me or Awan or you to do something you know you’ll never come back from.” And when Nelai crossed her arms over her chest, fighting down an angry retort, Tei said, “You wanted to be a Navigator, and this is what it means to be one. We fight for our squadron and Clan to our last, even if our Leaders send us to our death. Or if they sacrifice themselves for—”
“No.” Nelai felt the awful weight of anger, the near panic making bile rise into her throat. “I won’t let any of you do that.”
Awan looked away, uncertain, but Tei studied her steadily. “Even if one death means the others survive?”
“It won’t come to that—”
“You don’t know that, Seven Nelai.” Tei’s eyes were burning into her. “You don’t.”
Dupresh suddenly broke from his prowling perimeter check, running toward them. He signed curtly, Flee up hill, over the next depression. Hide in rock outcropping.
Awan grabbed the pack, and was at Du’s side in a flash. Nelai nearly tore Tei’s arms off trying to help the girl to her feet, and Tei hobbled after them, leaning on Nelai’s arm as she did so. Nel could hear her own raspy breaths, feel the frozen air scrape raw against her throat. Tei panted with the sprint, gritting her teeth as she placed more weight on her leg. Nelai saw new blood well from the Nav girl’s broken stitches; she took more weight on her arm, silently urging Tei to use her as a crutch.
They reached the outcropping, huddling beneath the snow-covered granite. Nel could see the bright blood coursing down Tei’s leg, staining the fresh pristine snow with spots of startling red. Nelai unslung Awan’s scarf from her shoulders, and quickly wrapped it around the wound, tying it as tightly as she dared, and heard Tei stifle a hiss.
Dupresh signed, One enemy sighted. Downhill. Armed. His dark eyes were fever bright, his breaths puffing into the cold. He pointed to Awan, and signed a mixture of ‘mountain’ and ‘song.‘ Awan, carry Tei on your back. Nelai—
Nelai flattened herself as the sound of an aeropistol rang across the expanse of the mountainside. Awan flinched beside her, signing shots fired, his inhalations a deafening bellows breath.
Dupresh signed, Enemy has not located us. Shooting to have us burst from the bush. Remain. Then when I’m fifty-yards distant, run.
It was the same as it had been in the field, watching him draw fire. Again. Nelai couldn’t let him, and she clutched at his shoulder hard enough that she was certain she left fingernail half-moon depressions in his flesh. His eyes were so bright, his moon-round face set in determined lines.
Tei pressed the butt of the aeropistol into his hand, and he took it, while she signed, Give as good as you get, First Leader. First flight, last flight.
He hesitated, and Nelai could see the fear behind his eyes, there buried beneath the determination. He signed back, First flight, last flight.
And then leaping up with certain agility, Dupresh sprinted from the outcropping. Heart pounding in her temples, thudding through her chest, Nelai leaped after him, hearing Tei’s stifled call of her name. But she wouldn’t listen, not even for her Second. She wouldn’t let Du die.
Her legs pumped in ground eating strides as she formed her hands to slice through the air. She caught up to his side, and saw the astonishment on his face; he began to gesture as Nelai heard a bolt sizzle through the air like the hum-buzz of a deadly insect and she saw it splinter the trunk of the nearest tree. He ducked behind one of the ancient pines and another bolt slammed into the trunk, splintering the edge.
Battle maneuver two! he signaled.
Her mind automatically saw his plan, the zig-zag way that they would run across one another’s path. Apart and then together again at intervals before diving—no, not diving, going downhill. Her breaths tore through her throat, burned her lungs as she ran at an angle away from him, hearing yet another shot—this one sizzling passed her, before she turned to run at an angle back toward Dupresh; his eyes were wide, but he signaled a change in interval, and as she ran beyond him, passing to within a hair, she felt her world shatter.
She screamed as the bolt buried in her shoulder, and the force of it spun her around. Nelai fell to the ground, feeling her body tumbling like a rag doll downslope, her numb arm useless to catch her own fall. Get up, get up! Her hands grasped at a nearby tree root, jerking herself to a halt. Blinding pain seared up her shoulder, her arm, across her back, making her head grow taught.
A face appeared above her as she struggled to gain her feet.
Quarethstra Tsavo pointed an aeropistol at her.
Flechette fire pinged near the man’s feet. Du’s firing. And the huge man scrambled back behind a large tree, concealing himself as three more bolts struck the trunk.
Nelai gained her feet, and stumbled forward when the enemy cried out, “One more step, girl, and I’ll send you to those Forge Gods you lowblood techies pray to.”
She hesitated for an instant—but that was long enough to cement her fate—and she saw the maw of the pistol aimed at her chest. At least it’ll give Du time to run. She wanted to close her eyes, wanted to block out the sound when the flechette speared through her flesh, but instead she glared at the man who was hunting them like Tamers hunted wild fowl.
“Scumlicker!” the Navigator shouted so loudly the veins stood out on his muscular neck. “Set down your weapon or I’ll put her down!”
Nelai pursed her lips, the fury warring with the pain, blinking away the white-tinge to her sight. And she spat, “Fuck you, Quarethstra Tsavo. Fuck you to the ten hells.”
A faint, wry smile on that face. “I always heard some techies got a little fire in them.” He peered around the side of the tree and a bolt flew toward him to within a breath wide of his nose. “Oh, ho! Scumlicker’s got some targeting skills. But you’ve only got one bolt left, lowblood!”
Should she tell this murdering traitor that all his taunts literally fell on deaf ears? No, to hells with that. If she surrendered to this Forge n’ Fire demon, then Dupresh would have no choice but to abandon her, to flee. To survive. Though fear ate at her from the inside, scraping across her skull with wicked claws, she sank to her knees.
“I surrender, Quarethstra,” she said, voice hollow. “Do with me what you will. Forget the scumlicker. Let him go.”
The man raised a brow, and the muscle in his cheek made it jump. “Tell me where the other two are.”
“Dead,” she said, no inflection in her voice.
“Wrong answer, little tech girl.” His cheek jumped again. “Tell me where the other two are and I’ll let you live. You want to live, girl? Tell me and I’ll even patch you up—”
“Fuck you,” she spat. A lie, a bedamned lie, he won’t let any of us go. “They’re dead. You killed them, you piece of bedamned shit.”
He moved from the shadow of the tree he stormed toward her; a flechette from afar whirled passed him, missing. Du’s last bolt. And he stalked to her, pistol aimed now at her head; he pressed the cold barrel against her forehead, and Nelai out a low moan of terror. She trembled so fiercely it brought a new flash of pain to the wound in her shoulder, and she wanted to close her eyes again. Block it out, all of it. But again she found her eyes meeting with this monster’s dark gaze.
“Come out scumlicker and tell me where the other two are hiding!” Tsavo grabbed at her shoulder and pressed his thumb against the bolt—Gods o’ the Forge it was still in her flesh!—and the flechette went deeper.
Nelai couldn’t bite back on a scream, a scream Dupresh would never hear. Tears formed in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks as the pain enveloped her. She tried to retreat deep within her own mind, the way techies were taught to focus away from the external. She even brought equations to her mind of a simple schematic—oddly her mind gave her the equations for the precise outline of a flechette bolt.
Those fingers dug the bolt deeper—deeper—and she lost all sense of anything other than the pain.
Slowly, she became aware of the monster saying, “Good choice, scumlicker.”
Nelai drew in a shaky breath, trying to blink her eyes clear of the tears. Dupresh’s visage was watery in her sight, but she saw him step from the shadows of the tree. She couldn’t draw in enough breath to scream at him to run, flee, find the others. His face bore that odd expressionless mien, as if nothing moved him; he held up his hands in surrender, tossing the empty pistol between them.
Let her go, signed Dupresh with an authoritative beauty to the motion. Release her and I will let you do what you will with me.
“Tell me where the other two are,” said Tsavo, “and I’ll let you both live.”
They are hiding in a cave downslope. I told them to stay there until I come back. There was no flicker of an emotion, but Du’s eyes grew darker. Now let us go.
The man shook his head. “See, I need to make certain you’re telling the truth. You’ll both take me to them.”
We had a deal. Dupresh sliced his hands through the air.
The man frowned, and it contorted his expression into something truly terrifying. “No Navigator would ever deal in the lives of his squadron. The sun has shined on us even in the worst moments, but here you crack like the upjumped scumlicker you are. Putting a bolt in you would be a sort of kindness.”
The saw Du’s countenance crack, and fury suffused his features before it was hidden yet again. He marched forward until the man raised his pistol in the boy’s direction, but Du didn’t stop until he was point blank to the pistol.
Slowly, Dupresh sank to his knees next to Nelai, and she wanted to touch him; trembling, she reached with her bloody hand, Gods all the blood, and set her fingers on his shoulder. He shrugged her hand from him as if brushing off a fly.
Her First Leader signed, Our lives for theirs, then.
Nelai choked back on shock, before her head grew so taught that she could see nothing but the edge of darkness.
But Dupresh signed, No? Then my life for theirs.