Light as a

She stared cross-eyed at the duratyne feather her claws held aloft. It was short for a secondary, but long enough that she could lay it across her armored forearm and link her elbow and wrist. The tip was broad, the body wide—these were the pinions that locked tightly during flight, formed the airfoil and generated lift. Zorina rotated the feather, peering at the leading edge. A very close observation revealed minute serrations that muffled the rush of air through each barb and vane.

Similar feathers were folded into a neat interlocking mesh against her back, miraculously preserved after so many hundreds of years. A curious and elegant affectation, one that favored internal batteries and personal resources for the long haul. A long-term investment, so to speak.

She remembered the mapping process when they’d been installed, the excruciating uplink as each nerve cluster grew into the organic metal. The spinal fusion, skeletal injections, muscle stims that engorged and lengthened her muscle fibers—a new and elaborate internal scaffolding.

And pain. Always pain.

She turned the metallic plumage over and over, recording the minute details between her fingers.

“Whatcha got there?” called one of her charges, swiping a dirty claw at the pristine treasure, jerking her back to reality.

The Maw had been stealing children from the local settlements—for what purpose, she didn’t know. Part of her wondered if they’d be rifted ring-wise to Ryjel for some nefarious scheme, an experiment, a brainwashing campaign, but the rational part of her knew the Maw hated her golden counterparts and their apparent good fortune as much as anyone. Plagued by their own low post-Beam birthrates and an inability to reliably map their neural networks, it was possible they simply wanted young minds to mold. Carriers of ancient cultures and tradition. Still. The sleek-furred Maw had always been secretive, but nabbing children felt strange, a step too far.

But the Coalition wasn’t paying her to speculate, just deliver. After she’d glitched into the Maw’s hanging village and whisked the children through the canopy, the questions from the brats had been ceaseless until they’d fallen asleep.

Zorina flicked the feather to her other hand, watching it gently seesaw through the warm air before plucking it back. A familiar face briefly appeared in her mind’s eye and then ghosted into memory.

“A trophy,” she lied, holding the quill between her first and second claws. She dangled it in front of the youngster’s face. “Sawed it off the first Ryjellian I killed just before he drew his last breath.” She forced a grin, baring a mouthful of teeth for feral effect.

The apparent drama wasn’t lost on the little one, her lips forming a distinct ‘o’ of interest.

“You should tie it to your sword,” she offered, gesturing to one of the blades strapped to Zorina’s waist. “That would look really neat. Can I touch it?”

An ancient patience managed to keep her from flinching away from the grabby claws, but a guilty dread shivered her featherlights beneath the distant twin dawn. Another tight smile.

“You’ll get your own someday. Go wake the others,” Zorina ordered, nodding to the sleeping bundles arranged around a smoldering fire. “It’s about time we break camp and head home. You’ve got folks interested in seeing you.”

Charged with this new task, the girl scampered back over the loose rock to the fire circle. Zorina sighed, starting to carefully tuck the feather back into her pack when she noticed a dark red spot by the root of the quill. Blood? Without thinking, she brought the feather to her lips and touched the cold, hollow point to her tongue.

Tried to remember how he tasted.

Frost

Sorina watched one of the dwarf’s gnarled hands come to an uneasy rest on the heavy hammer suspended from his belt. The other meaty paw white-knuckled the handle of a massive tankard still resting on the bar. She made a point of slowly unfastening the leather baldric that secured her runeblade to her back, carefully propping the entire harness against the wooden stool at her side before taking a seat.

“How d’yae know Raiek again?” the dwarf rumbled, squinting up at her beneath his woolly, red brows.

She paused. “Frost?”

~

“Frost!” she called, the hollow echo of her voice nearly lost in the storm.  She wrenched her battle-axe free from the entrails of a rapidly cooling body and pointed a long finger toward the moaning figure of a shield-bearing woman. With a squeal, a shaggy ghoul leapt from the corpse at her feet and set upon the struggling paladin with his yellow, blunted teeth. The wailing stopped.

“Have you seen these little books they carry around with them, Shackleton?” Raiek Frost smirked, emerging from behind a decrepit cabin. An embossed, leather-bound tome sailed through the red rain and landed at her feet. The pages splayed against the desecrated ground, ink smeared beyond recognition. “Pathetic.” Even with the poor visibility, his eyes were blue lamplights illuminating the pale outline of his face.

She kicked the libram toward an arm that had lost the rest of its person. “Who were they with?” she asked, wiping her axe on a stained tabard before fastening it to her back. The corpses bore no scarlet tabards, argent tokens, or symbols of the so-called Lightbringer. Nothing but their little books and a ramshackle assembly of dented, gray armor.

Done with its feast, her ghoul trundled over, hunkering by her side.

“No one, it seems,” Frost replied, upending a simple leather purse that had been tied to one of their belts. “Just some young fools who think that the Light makes them invincible.”

“Still.” She smoothed back her water-drenched hair. “A little strange, no?”

“Paladins!” he spat, sneering at the spread of bodies steaming in the rain. “Mindless lunatics incapable of perceiving anything beyond their petty cause. Probably some new ‘order’ trying to convert the carrion grubs and make a name for itself.”

She snorted, laying a blood-spattered gauntlet on her ghoul’s shoulder. “Come. Let us be done here. Perhaps there are stragglers we have missed.” With a grin, she started toward a muddied trail where two death chargers stamped impatiently.

“Wait.”

Shackleton turned, arching a thin brow over the glowing sockets of her eyes.

“We’re going to burn them. Every last one.”

~

“Aye, Raiek Frost.” The dwarf nodded, inching his hand from hammer to knee. The tavernkeep deposited a glass of caraway burnwine in front of her, which she briefly considered. She rubbed the slender stem of the glass between her thumb and middle finger before fixing the dwarf with a sunken-eyed smirk.

“We have had a history of ah—how you say? Successful busy-ness ventures.”