Dupresh watched Tsavo as the traitor munched idly on a dried vat-meat ration bar, vat meat that Dupresh’s line had raised—as was their duty—after painstakingly cleaning and repairing the vats. Du tried to clamp down on the hatred surging up through his body. For that his blood-kind had a saying in much the way Navigators had a saying for everything: Never let the hate in your heart show through your eyes. Never let the despair in your soul show on your face. One cannot find fault in seeing nothing.
And he saw what his blood-kind had truly tried to teach him: how to bow to someone stronger in order to survive. He’d heard his Elders speak of centuries past when cleaners were beaten to the edge of death for talking to a Rider, or Harvester, or anyone other than their own kind. But if Inventrix Varess had known of it, she didn’t care to correct it, perhaps even encouraged it. And Inventrix Mirena had given them no thought at all. And so the violence continued. Because they were nothing to the other blood-kinds.
His kind ceased to speak, ceased to show emotion, ceased to do anything other than survive. If a Rider wanted to steal your food in the mess hall, you gave it to them. If a Navigator wished to curse you and beat you, you bowed to their wishes. To survive. You became nothing.
People think us nothing, his mother had told him as a child, and it keeps us safe. But we know we’re not nothing. We’re stronger than they know. Keep them thinking us weak, for that is our protection. But one day you’ll use that strength against them and surprise them.
His gaze was drawn to Nelai. She’d lost blood, but the bolt was still embedded deep in her flesh; her lips were slack, and a low moan must’ve come from her as she shifted her tied wrists in front of her. He wanted nothing more than to assure her, to tell her that he would get her out of this…somehow. But Tsavo had to think him an honorless, idiotic scumlicker who cared about nothing other than his own safety.
Many thought the cleaners too stupid to have a deity, or to use the deities of another blood-kind. But their goddess was a furtive thing, much like themselves. She slid through shadows. Was Shadow. And so silently, for the first time in since he’d beaten that boy for knowing of his blood-defect, he mentally whispered the old prayers his father had taught him. Shadow, our goddess, see me through this by using the darkness… Hide my true nature. Quench the outward fire, cast my visage in shadow.
“How much farther?” asked the traitor.
Dupresh wished he could glare out his hatred, instead he shrugged. He couldn’t respond with his hands tied, and so he accepted the strike against his cheek—a backhanded slap. Only this one was harder than the last, and he tasted blood on his tongue. If only he could spit that blood in the traitor’s face.
“Answer me, boy,” the man growled, flicking open his flight knife. Navigators in the war often carried one in the event you had to cut yourself from the flight straps on being downed. It was small, but wickedly sharp.
Again, Du shrugged, accepting a third strike so powerful that the world whirled. And he landed on his back. Slowly, he lifted himself, only to see Tsavo’s massive form kneeling in front of Nelai, his dark eyes on Dupresh and not the tech girl.
“I can dig the bolt out of her,” said the traitor. “Or I can give her new wounds. Your choice, scumlicker. Tell me how much farther.”
Nelai’s fear was written in the tears sliding down her cheeks. Hells, she knew the game Du was playing, and it terrified her, but she set her jaw—that stubborn streak he so admired in her. It was her own strength. “Tell him, Dupresh. Please.” He was certain the pleading sounded very real, but he saw the slight shake of her head, as if to say: Draw this out longer. Make the traitor believe our lies. Keep the others safe.
Shadow, let him be able to get them out of this.
The man rose to his feet, alert. Was there someone approaching? But after a moment Tsavo relaxed, and walked forward. From downhill came a familiar fox-like face. He couldn’t hear the exchange between the men, and they were turned so he couldn’t read their lips, but when Kitsu walked back uphill with the Tsavo at his side, Dupresh made out:
“—didn’t kill him. She wants us alive, but for how long, that remains to be seen.”
“Our Inventrix is young and stupid,” said Tsavo. “Weak compared to Inventrix Mirena. She won’t kill us, because she has to let the Clan decide our fate. The bedamned Council. Our Clan is better off growing a new, stronger Inventrix.”
Their Inventrix was alive? Did that mean their Trainer was too?
Du dared to share a look of astonishment with Nelai, but he gestured as best he could with his wrists tied: Single-forward.
The signal not to wait on the rest of the formation, but to continue on the mission by yourself. They couldn’t rely on the Inventrix rescuing any of them.
Nelai nodded in agreement.
Kitsu turned his bright eyes on Dupresh and gestured. “Where are the other two?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” replied Tsavo with a growl. “But the scumlicker isn’t talking.”
Du could see the calculation in the fox-man’s eye, before he said, “The boy’s got a blood-defect. Can’t hear you at all. And he sure as hells can’t respond to you with his hands tied like that. He only talks in signs.”
Tsavo’s lips curled up in disgust, and he pursed his lips as if he would spit on Dupresh’s head. “Blood-defected scumlickers flying. Sun, if the Inventrix were here now I’d kill her for allowing them to mock our blood-purpose with this—this piece of shit.” He gestured to Kitsu. “I’ll get one of them to talk. Untie his hands, but hold him. Make sure he watches.”
Kitsu stiffened, but knelt at Dupresh’s side and untied his hands, not daring to make eye contact. Then he placed his long, bony hands on Du’s shoulder, holding him, though not tightly at all. The fox-man shifted his shoulders, loosening the aerorifle in its holster on his back.
Tsavo knelt next to Nelai again, this time grabbing her hands; he placed the tip of his knife beneath her fingernail, and said, “Tell me where this cave is. How far is it?”
Nelai’s breaths shuddered. “Please, d-don’t…” She tried to jerk her hands from his massive grip, but failed. Raw animalistic fear creased the lines of her face. “You don’t need to—”
Dupresh saw the knife slice forward and Du was certain he screamed with her, even though he didn’t know how. Could never hear it. Blood welled from the place that Nelai’s fingernail had once been, and she was sobbing, her words so jumbled he couldn’t make them out. Blood coated her hand and dibbled off into the snow beneath her in crimson patches.
Kitsu’s entire lean frame shuddered in horror. He met Dupresh’s gaze, and pressed his palm against Du’s chin, forcing him to look away. Du fought back; he couldn’t see her, couldn’t see what the traitor was doing to Nelai. When the fox-man released him, Du nearly vomited to see two more fingernails had been removed. And Nelai was struggling like prey caught in a trap, eyes wide and the white’s flashing; her mouth was open so wide in a scream that he thought her jaw would shatter.
Kitsu held him down, and something arose within him. All of the fury he’d been forcing down, down, always fucking down where no one could see it, burst forth. He reached for the fox-man’s eyes, willing to claw them from the man’s head, but Kitsu made the gesture: Safe.
In a single lithe movement, Kitsu reached for the aerorifle on his back, and in an instant it was in his hands. He aimed at Tsavo just as the man touched the edge of the blade to Nelai’s throat.
“Let her go, Tsavo,” Kitsu said with infinite calm, but his eyes flashed.
“I fucking knew it.” Tsavo pressed the blade closer, and a thin line of blood welled over Nel’s throat. “The Wheelteeth ruined you, First Leader. Can’t even see a little blood without the shadowfall taking you. You gave the scumlicker the pistol, didn’t you?”
Dupresh leaped to his feet, but there was nothing he could do. The hopelessness threatened to drown him, but he had to think. He signed, Let her go, and I’ll take you to the others.
His ruse of caring for no one other than himself was gone now.
Tsavo bared his teeth at them, and then before a breath could pass, the man hurled the knife at Kitsu; the blade struck the fox-man in his abdomen, and he began to fall. That startling moment was all Dupresh had, and he reached for the falling rifle. Tsavo was barreling toward him, faster than he’d ever seen any man move; the rifle was in Du’s hands, and as if time crawled through sand, the world slowed down this single moment.
Before he could aim the massive man was on him, grasping at his throat. Immediately, air was gone, but he gripped the rifle as his lifeline. Don’t let go. Dupresh fell into the snow, the traitor on top of him—all he could see was the man’s face transfigured by raw hate into that of a demon.
But then he saw Nelai behind Tsavo, raising a stone in her bleeding hands; it came down on Tsavo’s skull, and the man jerked the rifle from Du’s grip. Tsavo nearly toppled, but lashed out an arm, hitting Nelai; the girl toppled with the hit. The traitor’s eyes were glazed with the strike. Dupresh leaped to his feet, throat raw, and he lifted Nelai as if she weighed nothing.
The rifle was lost in the snow, and Dupresh urged her into a run.
Looking back, he saw Kitsu stumbling after them, while Tsavo clawed at the snow, searching for the rifle; blood was over the back of his skull, but Dupresh knew the traitor wasn’t dead.
Kitsu stared up at the massive bloodwood trees, all three of them larger than anything he’d ever seen. Most along the Cog Clan’s mountain borders grew to the size of a man, and no taller. Tales were that men and women tired of life would come to the mountains, and then take root, dying as they bled into the soil. And bloodwood trees would grow, their leafless limbs bare to the icy winds, their bark as shiny as new fallen blood.
The Exile Posts were made from bloodwood.
He had the insane urge to reach out and touch the trunk of the nearest bloodwood tree, as large around as he was tall. Pressing his fingertips to the bark, it was body-warm, and smooth as skin. His own blood smeared over the trunk. He shuddered, wrenching his hand away.
This is a sign. While he gave thanks to the sun daily, truly and with his whole being, he had never been particularly reliant on Its charity. The morning that his entire Wing was downed, he’d felt a strangeness within himself, and looking back perhaps there had been signs. Signs that the Wheelteeth squad they fought against wouldn’t take them to the camp for prisoners-of-war, but rather would keep his entire squad in a dank cave, filled with metal cages meant for livestock.
He closed his eyes against the pain of the past, which in this moment was far worse than the knife stuck in his gut. The screams of his wing runners had been so much like the screams of that little techworker girl…only then he couldn’t stop the Wheelteeth from torturing his squadron, but he could save her…
He slumped to his knees, clutching at his stomach. Sun, if you listen at all to a man destined for the lowest level of the hells, then please protect the young ones.
A cloud passed from the sun, making the disk momentarily bright, and the skin of the bloodwood grew even shinier, as if the blood were wet.
Perhaps that was his answer. Maybe a sign. He didn’t know.
He didn’t hear anything, not a whisper. But when he blinked his Inventrix appeared in front of him as some avenging goddess, her obsidian-colored eyes focusing on him with painful intensity. Her hair was wild, untamed, and she looked so feral that he wondered if he would feel her own bare hands ripping him limb from limb.
Her lips curled away from her teeth in a wolfish snarl, and she lowered the bow. “Traitor.“
Kitsu lifted a bloody hand, wanting to touch this furious goddess come for him. How powerful she looked. Not the bright smiling child he’d seen so often in the mess hall, but the true mark of an Inventrix, this furious strength.
“He had them, he hurt them, and I-I couldn’t let him.”
“Hurt who?” his Inventrix demanded.
Kitsu shuddered, and felt the knife shudder in his flesh too. “H-He…hurt the techie girl, tried to…”
From behind the Inventrix he saw Tsavo…no it was the man’s blood-cousin, Jarre, and his face contorted in disgust, his large, muscular arms flexing as if he’d like nothing better than to murder Kitsu on the spot.
I’ll let you, Third Leader.
Her eyes blazed, and she passed the bow into Jarre’s hands, before kneeling in front of him. She grasped at his cheeks, hard, and forced him to look into her eyes.
It was like staring down a demon unleashed.
“Forgive me,” he pleaded. Not for the Inventrix, but for the sun. “F-Forgive me, dear sweet sun, I didn’t think the children would be hurt. I would never…let me die now. Let me fall to the hells where I belong…”
“That isn’t your decision,” his Inventrix growled, and her eyes studied his wound. “Your Inventrix tells you not to die, then you’d better not dare to die.” She gestured curtly to Jarre. “Give me the med-kit in the pack.”
The Third Leader looked as if he’d deny his Inventrix her request, but shrugged the pack from his back and found the med-kit, passing it to her. She probed at the wound, but Kitsu ceased to make any sound, even when she carefully, slowly removed the blade from him, using her flight scarf to stop the bleeding. The pain was no more than he had felt when that Wheelteeth beast had shoved a hot knife beneath his skin…
“You’ll survive,” she said. More of a warning. Or threat.
He watched in surprise as she used one of the substances in the med-kit to glue closed the wound, bandaging it brusquely. He had been waiting for his Inventrix to interrogate him, and he knew this was no charity on her part.
“Are the children alive?” she demanded.
“Yes…” he croaked. “The tech girl and the cleaner boy, I helped them escape Tsavo, and they ran…She’s injured. A bolt to the shoulder. He shot her. And then he…took her fingernails…”
Jarre gasped, and began to pray under his breath. Perhaps asking for advice from those same ancestors he shared with a torturing madman. Perhaps declaiming Tsavo as his own blood.
“The other two, the Tanake girl and the Harvester boy,” Kitsu said, “I don’t know, but Tsavo hadn’t found them.” Kitsu inhaled as the Inventrix slapped the chemical-gel over the wound so it wouldn’t suppurate. His eyes stung as if all the hells were burning him alive from shame. “It was wrong, gods, he was torturing that little girl…I couldn’t let him hurt her…that’s not what I fought for. “
“Then what did you fight for?” his Inventrix snarled. “Why would you ever do this to your own Clan?”
He narrowed his gaze at her, mouth in a frown. “I did this to save us.”
Jarre didn’t bother to restrain his Inventrix as she balled her fist, eager to let fly with a punch; she shook violently, and slowly unclasped her fingers. Kitsu could see the bloodied divots her fingernails had left in her palms.
“There’s peace, godsdamn you!” The Inventrix still trembled with the need to strike at him. “And you would have the war begin anew! How many of our children would die in the fight? How many have died over the two centuries we fought? And you think a new war would save us?”
“Because,” he growled, forcing himself closer to the Inventrix, until his face was breaths away from hers, “there can be no peace as long as a single Wheelteeth lives! They’ll attack us when we’re weak, and we’ll die. This way, we strike first, we strike with vengeance in our hearts, and they will be crushed. Forever. Never again will we fall prey to their vicious natures. Beasts, all of them!”
“The Wheelteeth aren’t beasts—” she started.
“They are!” Kitsu gestured to the scars around his neck. “You never saw what they’re capable of! This, Inventrix, this is what they did to me. To my squadron. They had me in a cage like an animal, tied me up with wire around my throat, so that every time I moved, it might kill me. For months I sat I that cage, sitting in my own filth, my own blood until their squad leader would come to torture me some more about our positions. She would let me go back home if only I betrayed our Clan, my squad, everything I was. And I told that Wheelteeth bitch I would never betray my people. And then she executed my squadron in front of my very eyes, to make me talk.”
The screams of his men and women, crying for mercy, crying his name, begging him to help them… How close those treacherous words were on his lips, the need to give in to the enemy. He had tried then to hang himself with the wire around his throat, but the enemy beast stopped him. And now, his Inventrix treated with beasts like that, beasts that had put a bolt in his Second Leader’s head right in front of him…he still remembered the sound a bolt makes when splitting through a skull…
She paused, and something in her demeanor shifted. Softened. Quietly, she said, “You seem so very certain of a Cog Clan victory.”
Kitsu held his breath.
“But what if we lost? What if once this war renewed they annihilated us?” There was a crease of pity over her youthful brow. “I’m sorry for what happened to you, Kitsu. I do. But there’s only one constant in war, and that’s death. I can’t let my people die to fight a war that was nothing more than hate. Their hurts, our hurts, that’s all there was. We killed for vengeance, and killed because they killed, and they killed for vengeance because we stole the life from their people. The killing only would end with peace, and I’m sorry you couldn’t see that.”
“No, Inventrix,” he spat, fury rising up within him, “I’m sorry you can’t see what’s necessary to keep your people safe. You’re failing us. That’s why we had to sacrifice you. To make us strong again.”
And his Inventrix looked so mournful, the sadness of a far older woman. He could already see where the lines of sorrow would begin to etch themselves into her face with time, how disappointment and pain would mold her features in a way different from her stoic, cold predecessor.
“There is no weakness in peace,” she said quietly. “Only in war. In death.”
Kitsu managed to bark out a bitter laugh, but it devolved into a fit of coughing. “Put a bolt in my head already, Inventrix. I’ve earned it. And I admit to my treachery. I’ve shame only for the innocents who were swept into this.”
The Inventrix rose to her feet and without turning to Jarre she gestured for her bow. Slowly, Trainer Jarre passed the cam-and-pulley bow into her awaiting fingers.
This is it, Kitsu thought, not in fear. Today, I die.
“Your fate requires a trial,” the Inventrix said firmly. “And while in the past an Inventrix has been the ultimate judge, in this I will let our people choose whether to condemn you or not.”
Jarre said to her, his basso voice rumbling, “It would be a kindness to end him. He wishes for death. I can see it in his eye, how the shadowfall had become his every moment. He would’ve ended it himself if not for this twisted renewal of his purpose.”
But she shook her head. “Tie him to the bloodwood.”
Obeying her directive, Jarre roughly helped him to his feet and half-dragged him to the first of the giant bloodwood trees. He made no struggle as Jarre lashed him securely with rope the Trainer had in his pack, his hands tied behind him, roped around the tree…much like he’d been tied to the cage.
He had nothing left. His Inventrix would leave him here, alive, and perhaps that was his punishment. He closed his eyes, knowing that he had failed his Clan, his people, again. And the children…he’d failed them most of all, those innocents.
He began to whisper the words of a prayer that all Navgiators knew by heart.
The Offer of Life was a day-long prayer to the sun, offering one’s own life for that of another’s; but the one praying knew that the sun would never take them up on the offer, though they desperately wished for it, for what hubris there was in assuming that one life was more or less important than any other.
But sun, my life has always been less important than my Clan’s, our children, our people…
Nogatare Kitsu offered up his life in exchange for the children even now being hunted.
Shiran stopped to sniff at the air again, having picked up the scent of blood. Tei’s blood again. And Tei was moving slower. Jarre could tell by the footprints in the snowpack. Shiran was convinced they would catch up soon, and had even found a few bright spots of blood in the patches of snow on the trail. But it was clear that the girl—and Awan’s large footprints in the snow—were trekking back downhill.
There was no sign he could see of Nelai or Dupresh’s footprints.
The Inventrix pressed the pace hard, and if not for Jarre calling her to slow, he knew she would’ve left him behind—unknowingly so.
“Inventrix,” he said when she began to jog again, nearly leaving him behind.
She didn’t slow.
Grunting, he pressed his pace and touched her shoulder. She whirled around, fists up as if to strike him. He stood still, waiting for her to realize he wasn’t an enemy. Blinking, she studied him.
“I-I…” Shiran placed a hand to her forehead. “I…forgot how to speak for a moment. Gods…reseth nei il fornai eseth.“
Jarre blinked in confusion. “What?”
He could see fear creep into her expression. “Unas, regolsan di qar?“
“You’re speaking the inventor’s language, Inventrix, I can’t—”
She reached for his hand and clutched at it so tight he thought she could easily snap the bones in his hand like twigs. He grunted but bore the pain of it as she made the sign for: Talk.
She curtly gestured the negative, and signed: Heart-name.
“Shiran,” he said, trying to keep the fear form his own voice. Perhaps the intense focus on hunting the traitors was subsuming her, changing her thought process. “Why did you leave Kistu alive?”
Then shuddering, closing her eyes, she sharply signed with one hand, Different topic.
“Um…” She held tighter to his hand, and he squeezed back as hard as she gave. “Do you play cards?”
Her brow wrinkled dubiously, and she opened her eye.
“You see, I’ve been teaching the squad how to play cards. It diverts the mind, but also teaches how to lead with the hand you’ve been dealt. Even when you’ve been given a shit for a hand, you have to work with it.”
“M-More met-taphors?” she stuttered, trying a wan smile. “Ilan drosogo di qaanala.“
“Who would’ve thought I was the philosophical one, eh?” And even though it seemed the oddest thing to do for an Inventrix—their Clan’s stolid eternal-yet-not-eternal leader—he drew her into an embrace. He wasn’t even certain if Inventrixes needed or yearned the simple touch of another, for certainly each of her predecessors had thrived without it, but if he wanted to restore her to the most human part of her, then he could think of no other way than he would with some scared, wayward youngling. “While playing cards, you can use the ten of techs. Only in real life there is no card that restores the board to what it was at the beginning. If you’re afraid this is changing you, then perhaps you should let it. Don’t discard what you’ve been given, but use it instead. The entire hand, not just one part of you. You’re not only this—this hunter, this avenger and protector. But that part of you is still you.”
She returned the embrace so fiercely that he let out a grunt in surprise. “You’ve n-no idea how dresan ansa—how terrifying the hunter and avenger is. The protector is…not noble. She’s possessive. Selfish! That part of me started a petty, costly war.”
“That wasn’t you, Shiran.”
She drew back from him, angry. “That was me!” She thumped her chest in the Navigator sign for heart. “All three of them are pieces inside of me! My mirrors. They fought to possess one another’s things, for what are the people to an Inventrix other than possessions? What am I if I have no followers? I am nothing.”
Jarre thrust a large finger and poked her shoulder so hard she nearly stumbled. “You are Inventrix. You are our Inventrix.”
“Do you think it love for my people?” she asked in a croak. “No, you can’t. I don’t think I’m capable of it.”
“Sun-drenched shit,” he said. “I call.”
She blinked at him.
“I call your bluff, Shiran,” Jarre growled. “You think yourself so inhuman, so incapable of emotion. And hells, all I know is that your emotions are far more intense than you knew. More than you want. That’s called living. Growing up. It’s called experiencing life. It happens to everyone, even little scared Inventrixes.”
Her lips trembled, but she didn’t look away. “The Three destroyed our world, because they let themselves be ruled by their emotions.”
“And you Inventrix Shiran,” he said gently, “are trying to restore that world. And hells, everyone is ruled by their emotions.”
He regarded her, and for the first time he could see nothing in comparison to her predecessor. Not in look, and certainly not in word or deed. “Why did you spare Kitsu? The true reason.”
She embraced herself, and whispered, “Because I could see his pain. Not the physical wounds, but the internal ones that never scarred over.” She lifted her eye and searched his face. “Just as I can see yours. If I killed all of the members of my Clan who’ve suffered and are still suffering, then how many would be left? There is such shadowfall, such pain. You all have scars, all of you. And it hurts me to see them. I fear one day I’ll inflict my share of them on our people. And maybe Kitsu could see that.”
Blood pooled in the corner of her eyes, and he was reminded that Inventrixes, while powerful in body, had not been designed with the true ability to weep. If their sorrow was so great, they wept blood. She inhaled, and touched her cheeks in surprise, staring at the blood on her hands. “See? My kind lives in blood. I can’t even…gods, how cruel not to be able to cry without pain.”
He couldn’t stand it. He reached out and clutched her to him again, gently as if he would break her. She clung to him until his ribs ached. “Everyone who cries in sorrow feels pain, Shiran. In that you’re no different than us. And if you can see our pain, little Inventrix, then you’ll always try to help us.” And he added softly, “The thing you Inventrixes keep forgetting is that as much as we are yours, so too are you ours.”
Slowly, she drew away from him. There was a self-conscious crease to her brow, the awkward half-smile on her lips. “Thank you, Councilor Jarre.”
Feeling suddenly awkward himself, he signaled to get moving, an almost gruff movement.
But she stiffened, nostrils flaring. “Down!”
Jarre heard the sizzle of a flechette whiz passed his side. Shiran pushed him down, and he landed in the midst of the snow bank; he crawled on his elbows, her at his side, slithering like some reptile to the nearest tree. He crawled to the tree opposite, and glanced behind him, not seeing their assailant. But Shiran’s nose twitched, her pupils engorged to make her eyes look all the more obsidian; her movements to nock the arrow to the bow were sinuous as she leaped to her feet.
He could see the change in her, the way her eyes flickered into the open space, and spying their assailant from behind a very defensible rock, she tensed. Ready to spring. The blood tears staining her cheeks made her look a demon-spawn as her lips curled up viciously, whereas a moment before she was only a crying youngling.
“Inventrix!” cried their attacker. Xennar. “I have some of the lowblood squad! Come forward now!”
She released a low growl in her throat; her legs twitched, readying to leap into the open.
“Give yourself up!” called Xennar. “Then I’ll release them!”
“Tei,” the Inventrix whispered. “And Awan.”
Jarre knew that if she handed herself over, that would be the end of her. He didn’t know Kerlan Xennar well enough to know if he truly would harm the children.
He raised his basso voice, “Xennar! Let them come forward, and I’ll give myself up!”
A pause. “No one gives two sun-dried shits about you, Jarre! I need the Inventrix!”
He shared a look with Shiran, and she nodded. He could see that in her mind she’d already given the Offer of Life, and he gritted his teeth against that knowledge. He signed, We both go. Battle maneuver two. He knew it was right, it could’ve saved his doomed Wing so long ago, and he prayed it would help them now here on the ground. I draw fire, and you… He emphasized. Take him.
She signaled, Acknowledged.
Shiran’s voice rose, and he heard the power in it. It rang off the trees. It shed snow from their branches. “Send the children out first, and I’ll give myself over!”
“Just one of them!”
And Jarre peered around the side of the tree, and saw Tei limping toward them. Her jaw was set, even as her eyes shined in fear. He didn’t know how fast she could run, but he would still signal to her when it was time. He heard Shiran’s increased breaths beside him. He bounced to his feet, marking the terrain in his mind’s eye. The Inventrix held three arrows clenched between her knuckles with the Rider’s preferred rapid-shoot method, while she drew with her thumb.
On three, he signed. One, two, THREE!
She burst out into the open first, her strides fast—so fast!—but she slowed as he signaled, Interval five! And Shiran zig-zagged in a loop passed him. Flitting to and fro. Bolts whizzed by her, but she was faster than anything alive. She’d already nocked an arrow and let it fly, then before she changed direction again, another arrow flew as Xennar rose to shoot at her. The man ducked behind the rock.
Jarre signaled to Tei, Increase speed. Battle manuver two.
She gritted her teeth, eyes nearly pinched closed, but she started running on her wounded leg, sometimes skipping a hop to keep some weight off. She kept running forward and dodged, moving beyond Jarre; he glanced back for a fraction to see her skid to a halt behind the nearest broad tree. When he turned back three more shots had been aimed at the Inventrix. But she let fly with her arrows before the man could get off another shot. And Jarre saw the barrel switch directions; not aiming for Shiran. But for him.
He felt the impact of the next bolt. Felt it pierce his forearm, jutting out of his flesh as it struck bone. But he kept running. He was screaming. Screaming like his Wing had before plunging into the earth. The cry of one doomed. The barrel was aimed straight for his chest. Too close now. There was no avoiding it.
Awan rose from his position on the ground, his hands tied, and leaped on Xennar’s back. The big Harvester boy struggled to throw the man to the ground, but endured hard elbows to his ribs. The boy used the rope around his wrists to strangle Xennar; the pistol swiveled in the man’s hands—
But the Inventrix was on him. She took two graceful bounds over the rock itself and slammed the bow’s limb into Xennar’s face. Awan staggered back, panting. But Shiran was on Xennar, her fist flying into his face; Jarre could hear the crunch of bone, saw the man’s nose break. She tossed aside the bow, and her hand gripped at Xennar’s where he held the pistol. Jarre stopped dead in his run as Xennar’s hand turned to pulp within her grip. She jerked upward and bone thrust from the flesh of the man’s arm. Swinging with his uninjured hand, the Inventrix caught that fist and wrenched; the sickening crunch of bone joined in chorus with the man’s gurgling scream.
Xennar fell into the snow and she pounced. Her hands encircled his throat. Already Xennar’s face was purple. His fingers, shattered and useless, tried to claw her implacable grip from his throat.
Pain pounded through Jarre’s head, but he didn’t want to stop her. Part of him wanted to help her end it. But he had promised not to let her kill these traitors. It was an unspoken oath he must see through.
But Awan cried, “Inventrix!”
If anything could’ve stopped her, it was the voice of one of her children. She snatched her hands away from Xennar’s throat. Panting, she got to her feet. Blood covered her hands. She stared down at the screaming man, lips still curled in a snarl. When Awan hesitantly stepped toward her, staring down at the mess of ruination, she whirled around and urged him back like a wolf keeping her pups away from a venomous serpent.
“Inventrix,” the Harvester croaked. “Are Nelai and Dupresh with you?”
Jarre began jogging to her, but she snarled again and grabbed at the lapels of Xennar’s flight jacket, forcing his face closer to her. “Where are the other two?“
When Xennar gurgled, she struck a fist to his one good eye. The eyesocket shattered, and the man howled; she shook him, worrying at her prey. “Where are the other two?“
Xennar inhaled through the blood, “I ‘on’t knooow…”
She screamed at him, and lifted her fist again. Jarre reached out—gods how it hurt to move—but he grasped her arm; he almost couldn’t stop the strike, she was too strong. She spun around, her dark eyes no more than two pits.
“He doesn’t know,” Jarre insisted. “End this. Do it mercifully. Judge him as is your right.” He breathed out slowly through his nose. “As much as I’d love to watch, you can’t do to him what was done to Kitsu by the enemy.”
The vicious rage on her bloodied face slowly—achingly slow—began to lessen. Her shaking had stilled, and she took several steps away from the cringing man. “Awan, I need your council. You and your Second.”
The Navigator girl was limping back toward them, lips pressed together against the pain. But the Harvester boy sprinted off after her. When she reached Awan’s side, the Harvester boy slung an arm beneath her legs and lifted her into his arms, then carried her back to the tableau before them. Tei didn’t show any disgust or surprise at the evidence of carnage; she pursed her lips and spat in Xennar’s direction.
“Kerlan Xennar,” his Inventrix intoned coldly, “you have been accused of treachery against your own Clan. Attempted murder of members of the Cog Clan. Those you swore to the sun to protect from all harm. Do you plead innocence of these crimes?”
A thin sound escaped from his gurgling mouth, and he slurred, “Nooooo.”
Shiran picked up the aeropistol and checked the chamber—it had one bolt left. “Kameratsu Awan, you’ve been called to judge a man of your peers. How do you so judge?”
The Harvester boy hesitated, but his eyes glinted. “I’m not a Kamerastu anymore. And I won’t slander my former blood, or my own heart-name, by thinking myself worthy to judge whether to kill a man or not.”
Tei said firmly, “Then judge him as Tanake Awan. As a Navigator and wing runner.”
Awan shook his head. “He will pay for his crimes however the gods see fit, but not at my word.”
The girl glared at him with those stormborn eyes. “And if he killed Nel and Du? What would you say then?”
Awan firmed his lips into a thin line. “Then he deserves to die.”
The Inventrix nodded, and regarded Tei. How the young girl could meet with those obsidian eyes, Jarre wasn’t sure. “And you Tanake Tei? You’ve been called to judge and—”
“He’s guilty,” said Tei firmly. “If it is to be mercy, then shoot him now, Inventrix. We’ll bury his flesh so we might never see his ashes fly to the sundisk. And let him sink to the lowest level of the ten hells.”
Condemning him not just in this life, but the next. Jarre wasn’t sure whether the heaviness in his chest was vicious agreement with the girl’s condemnation, or weary sadness that her answer had been so bloodthirsty.
And finally his Inventrix turned to Jarre, but she didn’t put the ritual words to him.
“This is a small battle in a larger war, a war between those of our own Clan,” Jarre said, thinking on this as a Councilor, not as Third Leader, and certainly not as Trainer. “We must condemn his actions as a traitor, but also understand why he did so.” Jarre gestured to the scarred X on his own cheek, a mark of what their previous Inventrix had thought of as cowardice and betrayal. His own traitor’s mark. “We leave him alive. We take him back before the Council chambers to be condemned or saved by a true judge of his peers.”
The Inventrix inclined her head, looking still like a demon anointed in blood. She flipped the aeropistol around and handed it to Jarre, grip first. “Bandage his wounds if you feel generous. But get the children to a defensible position and keep them safe.”
She studied the wound in his arm. “You’ll live. Had worse before, I suspect.”
“That I have,” he said, grimacing. “Still hurts like the ten hells though.”
“Thank you.” She placed a bloodied hand gently on his shoulder. “You tried to give your life for mine. For theirs. I won’t forget that.”
“Ah, don’t get all emotional on me now, Inventrix.” But he tried to grin at her. “Besides, you belong to us. I was just protecting my Shiran. The littlest Inventrix I know.”
She gave him a not-quite wan smile, before it disappeared without trace. And again she peered down at Xennar. “There is no consensus among your judges, Kerlan Xennar. For now, you live. Struggle against them in your imprisonment and I give them leave to execute you. Try to escape, and I give them leave to execute you. Do anything else but breathe and I give them leave to execute you. Am I understood?”
The word bubbled through the bloody spit in Xennar’s mouth, “Yesssh.“
She swept up her fallen bow from the snow and bounded two steps before saying, “I’ll return with Nelai and Dupresh. If I can’t…if I don’t…” Her eyes were colder than the ice beneath his feet, “then I’ll return with Tsavo’s severed head to take to the Council.”
She sprinted off into the snow covered forest faster than a bounding grasslands gazelle, and Jarre said under his breath, “May all the gods speed your steps, Shiran. May the sun light your way.”
Nelai had no more tears, but her legs gave out on her, and only Dupresh’s steady hand kept her upright. Sweat slicked against her forehead, her cheeks, and for the first time in a while she felt warm. Too warm. Her First Leader signaled a halt behind a low outcropping, and she collapsed into the little overhang.
Du gently grasped her bleeding hand, tears standing in his big, round eyes as he studied it. They had nothing to bandage it. And with every step she could still feel the bolt jostling in her shoulder. She was light headed, maybe simply from fear, maybe from the pain, hells, maybe both.
Dupresh’s face creased in guilt, signing, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
It wasn’t his fault. She’d disobeyed him as her First. And there was regret in that. Perhaps his plan would’ve worked, perhaps he could’ve outrun the furious monster with the pistol. Or maybe she’d saved his life and it was meant to be. She’d never know.
I’m sorry, he signed desperately, hands shaking, Sorry, sorry, sorry—
With her good hand, she stilled his frantic signing, and brushed her fingertips over the crease in his brows, smoothing away the desolate expression. “You did what you thought best, Du. We’re both still alive.”
He nodded, inhaling a shaky breath to steady himself against spilling the tears in his eyes. Yes, and I must keep you that way… He tried to smile wryly. Maybe a little worse for wear.
“I’ve had worse in the forge caves.” She tried to force a laugh, but it hurt. Gods, her head went tight again. “This is nothing. My first Navigator scars.”
Shakily, Dupresh got to his feet, and gently helped her do the same. Though she could still see the fear in his eye, his expression hardened, his stance shifted, his signs assured. We must move for a weapon. I know where Kitsu’s gryphon is. Now that none of our enemy are near the flyers, we must make for it. Kitsu never fired on us, so there must be bolts in the thing.
“But what of Tei and Awan?”
That question clearly pained him. They are on their own. But our squadmates are clever. Awan is mountain-song, he is strength. And Tei is stone-steady, she is Second Leader.
Her eyes stung, but she beat them back. She was sure Tei would say how like a First he sounded, how like a Navigator. But no more tears. Her squadmates would find a way to safety. She had to believe it so, or she wouldn’t be able to move.
Nelai made an affirmative gesture with her hand and winced. Even moving her good hand made pain flash through her back to the bolt in her flesh. “Acknowledged, First Leader.”
He paused, uncertain. And then he reached for her face with his remarkable hands; Nel knew the feel of hands formed by hard work from living among her own kind. His rough palms cradled her cheeks, and his thumbs tried to wipe away the remnants of her dried tears. The grains of salt were gritty against her skin. Then, very gently, he pressed his lips against her right cheek. She relished the warmth, the roughness of his dry, windblown lips. Then as she held her breath, he pressed his lips against her left cheek.
Heat rose to her skin, but she didn’t know if it was from astonishment, or the simple, confusing pleasure that arose from such an intimate gesture. Lastly, he pressed his lips against her forehead, and drew away.
She felt like she was missing some deeper meaning behind this. Still, she held her breath. And she hated the loss of his hands, wanting to clutch at them. Words stuck on her tongue.
Nelai, he signed with those beautiful motions. Then he signed the individual words to her given heart-name with aching elegance. Strong. Fire.
And again she thought of “Strong Fire,” a song that techies sang when the heat of the crucibles grew so intense that even their cooling-wire worksuits couldn’t keep out the intensity of it.
She wished she could sing it for him, but he would never hear it.
So when he turned down the trail, and she moved to follow, she began to hum it quietly under her breath, the song of her name.
Bloodwood trees. Three of them.
Dupresh stared at the man strapped to the first tree, disbelieving. The blade was gone from his flesh, and had been bandaged. He spied the blade itself in a bloody mess on the ground. Without hesitation he picked it up—a weapon!—and passed it to Nelai, who took it without protest. Slowly, she wiped the blood from its blade on her leg, her eyes still studying the strange apparition before them.
Kitsu’s eyes were closed, his mouth moving, though Du was certain the man muttered in such a way that Nel couldn’t hear it. Dupresh watched the words, and realized they were a prayer of sorts, reading bits of the rote words: “—and take my soul, for I give it willingly, but in return save the lives of those names I’ve sung to you. Hear me sing them again, dear sun.”
Dupresh saw his own name in that prayer. He clenched his hands in fists, remembering how the man had forced his face away from Nelai’s screams, from seeing the knife bury beneath her nails. Perhaps the man thought it a mercy. But it hadn’t been. He took a step forward, wanting to strike the bound man for daring to put his squad in danger at all. But the blade Nel held even now was testimony to the Navigator’s sacrifice, to that single moment of honor.
They would leave him to his prayers.
Nelai looked about to speak, but he gestured her to silence. Slowly, they slipped away, and if the Navigator saw them, or called out to them, then Dupresh would never know.
Half the day had passed, the sun beginning to set, and Nelai had never been so exhausted, so ready to simply lie down in the snow and let the cold take her; she’d heard stories of men and women who retreated to the Sunset mountains to die, how the cold gave you a dreamless sleep before death. The pain of her injuries seemed so much greater now that the fear was leeching from her, for she was too weary to care much for the lurch of terror huddling in her breast. Yet, she didn’t ignore that press, that gnawing dread, for when she did she knew she would truly lie down.
No. She couldn’t let the snow take her into death; she had to make certain that Dupresh lived. No lying down, not while…she had to see her parents again. And her blood-uncle who had smiled so broadly when she asked if he would let her fly. And she had to get Du back to his mother, to his hopeful blood-kind who wanted nothing more than him to prove their innate worth for all the Clan to see.
Gods o’ the Forge, she thought. He’s proved it a hundredfold.
Du turned to her, hiding the worry that tugged his lips in a slight quirk downward. You can’t go any farther, he signed curtly. The look on his face was that of her First, not her friend. In this he would listen to no protest.
He looked ready to stand firm against her argument, but she said only, “Acknowledged, First Leader.”
The gyphon is just over that hill. I will go on—
“Not without me.”
His expression hardened, his signing sharper. I’ve no choice, Nelai. The gryphon is in the open, and you are too tired and hurt to run fast enough to it if our enemy is watching. For now, you must hide yourself.
“You’re using yourself as bait. Again.” He looked away from her, his way of shutting out her words; but Nelai grasped his cheek with her good hand and forced him to look at her. “Trainer Jarre is always telling us that we must rely on one another. So rely on me, Du. Trust me. Let me risk myself. I’m more than willing.”
He let out a long, slow breath. I do trust you, Nelai. But I’m focusing on the hard facts. I’m faster. I’m not injured. I—
“What did it mean,” she began, still holding his cheek, “when you…you kissed me like you did?”
She could feel his own cheeks heat beneath her fingers. He dropped his eyes, but she shook him slightly.
“What did it mean, Du?”
He met her eyes, something indefinable shining behind them. Our goddess is Shadow. When we call for her to protect someone we… His hands were suspended in the air for a breath, someone we love, we give them the kiss of three.
“Can…can I…?” The forges were igniting in her face, making it hot. Not from embarrassment, she knew. “Can I return the gesture?”
It might be the last time. And if one goddess in the world would protect him, then she would kiss his cheeks a thousand times.
He gave her a shy, genuine smile. Normally his smiles were restrained. But not now. His sign seemed to echo the smile, Yes.
Nelai leaned toward his cheek, lips pursed when she heard the snap of a twig. Instead, she grasped his flight jacket lapels and half-threw him into the shadows of the largest nearby tree. Her heart sped into a gallop and she could feel the throb of it in her fingertips where the nails were missing. Dupresh stared around him, alert, hunched to defend. Nelai reached into her pocket and withdrew her knife, the only weapon they had.
And a white fox bounded from the brush, skittering quickly beyond them and blending in with the snow.
Du let out a relieved breath, but still peered around. When he turned to her, he said, I’ll make a run for the gryphon now. Then we’ll have a true weapon, and I’ll find you. I’ll fly the bedamned thing to wherever you are.
She had to let him go.
Nelai held the knife out to him, but he waved it away. Then with a single backward glance, he turned and ran as if demons were nipping at his heels; she watched him sprint up the steep hill, and disappear over the side. She half turned to jog in the opposite direction, when she saw a tall, powerful figure running from the cover of the forest. Nearly vomiting, she moved as Tsavo leaped up the side of the hill in ground-eating strides, holding the aerorifle in his hands.
She only knew that she was running with the knife. Toward the enemy. Not away.
Her legs wobbled, exhausted as she tried to bound up the hill; halfway to the top she heard a shot from the rifle, and it spurred her quicker, heart in her throat. Reaching the top, she saw Tsavo twenty lengths from the gleaming form of the gryphon, Du within the flight seat, hunkered down while he desperately tried to work around the start-up routine in order to bring the gun to bear.
The beak opened slowly. Tsavo aimed another shot and it speared through the side of the gryphon as if the pseudo-metal were tissue paper. The man aimed again—
And Nelai was running. The enemy cracked off a shot again, and Du hunkered lower in the seat. And now she was close, so close. In silence she bounded up, leaping…
She clasped onto the man’s back, thrusting her knife through the back of his neck. His body went rigid, and he slumped to his knees; his arms flailed weakly. Blood poured over her hand, but she wrenched the knife free—how easily it slid from the meat of his neck. She stabbed downward blindly. The knife sunk into his back and it rattled up her arm as it struck bone. The body was limp, but she had to make sure. He might come after them again. And so she thrust downward as if possessed by the beat of the tech lines, and she found rhythm in the way the knife slid in and back out, only to plunge downward again. And again. And—
Someone caught her hand on her next downward swing. It’s him! she thought wildly. She struggled against the iron grip, and balled up her fist—feeling the missing nails in her palm, and raised it to strike.
“Enough, girl!” cried a familiar voice.
Nelai blinked, feeling the hot blood on her face. Coating her hands. Her flight jacket. She was warm now. Wouldn’t die in the snow.
Obsidian colored eyes regarded her. That face…
“Inventrix?” Her voice seemed born of another.
The girl looked barely older than herself, but her expression looked like someone much older. Her face was cast in lines of blood, like a mask worn by demons. “Give me the knife, Nelai. It’s over. You’re safe, girl.”
She clasped at the blood-slick knife harder. “No…” Where’s Du?
Nelai lurched to her feet and ran, stumbling toward the gryphon that hummed with its starting engines. She reached the gleaming flyer. She couldn’t breathe. But she leaped on one of the feather-like wings and steeled herself to see what carnage the enemy’s bolts had wrought…
Du looked up at her.
No blood. Nothing.
He’s alive. “D-Du? Are you…?”
He stood in the flight seat and drew his arm around her, clasping her tight about her waist. She was laughing, not crying, laughing. The fear in her breast loosened, and then evaporated as if never there. He’s alive!
Slowly, he parted from her, and leaped down to the ground. Shaking, still laughing that slightly unhinged sound, Nel dropped next to him, feeling the jolt in her shoulder. He’s alive. Alive.
And she’d killed a man. No, not a man. She couldn’t think of Tsavo as anything other than a monster. And that’s what she’d…she’d killed. A dangerous beast.
“Inventrix,” she managed, hating the quiver in her voice. “Do you know if Tei and Awan are…?”
“They’re safe with your Trainer,” she answered. Then sparing a glance for the body in amongst the patches of snow, the Inventrix gritted her teeth and gestured sharply. “Away from here, younglings. With me.”
It was then that Nelai saw the arrow buried deep in the enemy’s thigh. And she realized her Inventrix must have managed a single shot before Nelai grew too close that the Inventrix risked hitting her. The Inventrix’s arrow had disabled him long enough for Nelai’s blade to do the work…
Her stomach roiled.
Then she vomited into the snow, watching steam rise from the watery, empty bile. She fell to her knees, and heaved, but nothing came out. Gentle hands touched her hair, drew it back from her face, and her Inventrix was saying, “You did what you had to, little Seven. Come away now. We’ll meet with the rest of your squad.”
Numbly, she paced at her Inventrix’s side, and when she passed the body—yes just a body now, just dead meat, decaying flesh—she held the bloody knife tighter, unwilling to let it go.