Purpose

“Do you resent your purpose?” Zorina asked, tugging one of their discarded gloves over her left hand. She flexed her fingers experimentally, watching as the black organics molded to her skin. The faceted ley lines in the smart fabric remained dark.

“No more than you resent yours, I imagine,” Aeron replied. They touched Zorina’s wrist, and the ley lines glowed white, electrifying the skin beneath the glove with a delicious shiver. When they slowly drew away, the thrill of energy receded with the dying light. Zorina shucked the glove one finger at a time and dropped it into Aeron’s lap.

“But no one’s forcing me to do what I do.”

“We all function within parameters, little Infiltrator,” Aeron said, giving a hank of Zorina’s damp red hair a yank. “You, me, we’re both programmed. That I’m a fragment of a quantum algorithm is inconsequential. When I split from the cluster, a wave function collapsed—all other universes were instantaneously closed to me. Though I’m coded for the resurrection imperative, I also am solely the product of my collected experiences.”

“Then why—”

“Your insecurity bores me. I know what I like, same as you. In fact, I’d say I know your body better than you do. I can feel the quiver of blood in your heart, see the silver stretch of tissue that protects it. I can visualize the precise angles at which you’ll break and map the interstitial matrices of desire.” The soul healer’s inky pupils met her mismatched eyes.

Zorina sneered and kicked a mirrored helmet into the corner.

“Show me,” she demanded.

 

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.

A Rendezvous With Death

She exploded into consciousness the way a fish flees a predator—leaping, terrified, gasping in the alien air.

Years earlier, she’d waded past the foaming green breakers between two sand bars, her pockets filled with stones. The rip had quickly dragged her out to sea. She relinquished control to the fetal embrace of water, floating in the womblike troughs between waves. Eventually, the face of a massive roller towered before her, plunging her into a buffeting surge of water as the wave crested and broke over her head. For a moment, there was nothing but cold water, weightless oblivion, and a muted roar filling her ears.

It wasn’t a peaceful drift like she’d hoped. Zorina tried to force her body to relax, plumb oxygen from a new medium. Her coat, laden with jetty rocks, tugged her head below the surface but wasn’t heavy enough to sink her to the ocean floor. The tightness in her chest corkscrewed into an exquisite need, and she inhaled deeply, bright spots dancing behind her burning eyelids. When she choked down her first mouthful of brackish water, her traitorous body bucked the mental imperative to calm, legs frantically trying to brace against a sandy bottom that wasn’t there.

It felt a little like that now: drowning in reverse.

“She’s alive,” a voice called. A gloved hand clapped her shoulder, electrifying her skin with rush of warm energy and making her teeth chatter. Zorina blinked against the terrific brightness of the afternoon. The smell of acrid smoke stung her nostrils and tickled her sinuses, and she bristled, fighting off a sneeze. Alive! She resisted the mighty urge to claw at her throat, trace the line of her sternum, and examine the phantom wound. She swam in an overload of confusing sensory input.

“I hear the first death is always the worst,” the same voice quipped, coughing out an obligatory chuckle. Zorina’s eyes finally focused, zeroing on the source: a figure in a dark bodysuit, faceted gloves, mirrored mask. A soul healer.

“It was nothing,” she rasped. And yet she felt trapped in the clutches of some somnolent ghost, mind separated from body, observing herself at a distance. She recalled a moment of agony as hot metal sheared through her organics. The taste of blood filling her mouth. Could see, but couldn’t feel, her body crumpling into the dirt after the weapon sheared through her spinal column. A curtain of darkness as a man hoarsely shouted her name.

Someone cleared their throat, snapping the eidetic string of memory.

The soul healer was offering her a hand up, their gloves crackling with energy. Zorina ignored the proffered palm, wary of another teeth-clenching jolt, and forced herself to her feet. She tried not to sway. The burning smell—something like an ozone-fired barbecue—lingered in her sinuses. The soul healer dropped their hand and placed it on their own waist instead, head tilting as though surveying Zorina critically. Their mask remained blank.

“Slow down, glitch. Outpost is a solid day’s march.” One gloved finger rose in warning, preempting a protest. “Rapid transit’s offline, and you’re in no shape to fly.” The soul healer’s voice filtered through the mask with a robotic twang.

The feeling of helplessness multiplied. Zorina stretched, chest out, shoulders down, and wings erupted from her back, snapping to their full span—twice as long as she was tall. The duratyne featherlights fused to her spine shivered before collapsing and folding flat again. She’d almost forgotten they were there. Just the thought of pumping them made her bones weary. She nodded slowly to the faceless soul healer. “Where’s—”

“I’m here.” A blood-smeared face wearing a hesitant grin appeared over the soul healer’s shoulder. Zorina fought to keep her face neutral as panicked relief flooded her system. “You totally breached protocol with that save, you know,” he said.

“Not you. Where’s the legion.”

“I am the legion,” he deadpanned, balancing his halberd over his shoulders like a vicious yoke.  

Something sounding suspiciously like a snort emitted from the soul healer’s mask as they shook their head and tapped the flimpad on their forearm. “You seem adequately functional,” they observed, and engaged their optical camouflage. “Duty calls.” With an audible pop, the disembodied voice phase shifted away.

Zorina sighed, waiting for her legs to firm before attempting to walk. Her first step nearly tripped her over a blackened pair of lightblades, and she automatically bent to retrieve them. Hers? She squinted at the serials on the grips, but the numbers eluded her. The blades were still hot to the touch. Where were her gloves? Zorina hoped the post-resurrection fog would lift soon.

“I knew I’d come back, Marcus. It was nothing,” she repeated firmly, and switched tacks. “You must have missed rendezvous. Did you—”

“Ride the slip? No. Still in one piece. I waited for the soul healer to initiate backup protocols.” For me, she thought unhappily. He didn’t clue into her expression or else did a fine job ignoring it. “I figured I’d look like a real hero bringing back the Red Fox.”

“Don’t call me that,” she snapped, slamming the daggers into the scabbards at her hips. Marcus held up his hands in a placating gesture.

“Glitches are valuable resources. Famous ones, especially.”

“Infiltrators,” she insisted, stressing the military designation, and drew beside him.

He might have rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean. The remnants fell back to bunker six-zero-four after detonation. A bit of a draw, if you ask me.”

“A draw.”

“Relatively speaking, of course. The Skrit pulled out.” He winked, but she caught the vague note of concern in his voice, the tightness of his jaw. “How’d you know?”

“Know what?” She stumbled slightly as she fell into a slow march, an unpleasant reminder her neurons were still regrowing. He swiveled to regard her, narrowly avoiding braining her with the shaft of his halberd. “And for fuck’s sake—watch where you’re swinging. I’ve already died once today.”

He tipped the weapon to oblige her, and tried again. “How’d you know most of the infantry were out of kisk range?”

“I didn’t,” she admitted. But she’d suspected. How did one defeat an immortal enemy? Separate it from its regeneration technology.  Successful resuscitation required a local, personal kisk and a soul healer to guide the process. It was theoretically possible to come back without one, but not both. Not safely.  

The latest rash of concentrated Skrit invasions had pulled their response teams into increasingly remote locations, daring the legion to abandon their kisks or permanently risk losing settlements, resources, civilians before they could relocate backups. It’s what she would have done, after all.

A chill swept through her body, and for the first time since she’d resurrected, she surveyed the smoldering earth. Coniferous trees popped and sizzled. She recognized the obliteration of pulse weapons in the wrack of smashed corpses dotting the crater. The harvesting station was gone. At the edge of the new clearing, her soul healer sat on their haunches, mask catching the glare of the setting suns. They struggled to will life into a charred body, white lightning briefly illuminating both healer and patient. And though the corpse’s dark skin obliged, stretching to cover burned meat and smoking bones, the fresh muscle only twitched once before stilling. Out of range.

Zorina drew a small circle over her chest with one finger. She’d been lucky, then.

“If you hadn’t stepped between us…” He trailed off, mouth compressing into a grim line. His gaze drifted toward the narrow, wooded path that would eventually lead them to 604’s bunker.

She followed his stare, a memory unspooling. The siren’s call of conflict had been unmistakable. She’d felt it reverberate through her bones, stir the featherlights at her back, and snake its way inside her skull just before her comm thrummed with warning: Unexpected casualties. Repeat. Unexpected—the fwoop-boom of a pulse blast cut the message short. Heavy reptilian bodies swarmed the station below her, their figures shimmering with scattershield glare. A lone trio of legionnaires defended the gates: two on the ground, one with his back pinned to the force wall. Marcus. She ducked formation, wings tucked tightly against her sides, and fell like an invisible meteor into the fray.

Zorina blinked back to the present. She watched Marcus unseat his weapon from where it rested on his shoulders and collapse the shaft, making it manageable to sling across his back as he marched onward. Dried blood filled the lines of his face, and one of his hands trembled. He was exhausted, she realized.

No. Terrified.

“You finished it though,” she offered, almost afraid to hear his reply. “You saved the research team.”

He nodded, left corner of his lip curling. “In a way.”

The crater yawned behind them.

Cemetery

The new Stormwind Cemetery was a surprisingly pleasing place to relax: fewer mounts traipsed through the cobbled streets, vendors ceased hawking their wares at the gates, and if you didn’t mind the occasional bouts of sobbing (she didn’t), it was quiet. Wonderfully quiet. Shackleton doffed her spired helmet and rested her head against a marble tombstone, listening to the gentle lap of lake water against the far bank. It was the kind of place, she thought, where death could be peaceful.

Glacierthief obviously approved. The ghoul's blackened mouth gnawed on the corner of the headstone, slobbering over the carved figure of a spirit healer. Despite this, the ghoul was at ease amidst the expanse of tidy graves, comfortable in the presence of his sleeping brethren. Shackleton handed him her helmet to hold and kicked her long legs out in front of her, admiring the grass tickling her hooves.

“I am surprised about this Grael,” she offered to the ghoul. “Frost described her as a formidable warrior, but she is a small woman. A priest. Given his general aversion to those who blindly follow the Light—”

Glacierthief made a non-committal grunt as he shook the helmet, tapping it lightly on the marble headstone.

“He is also a priest now. I know this,” she snapped, snatching the plate helm from her minion. “But she does not treat him so. She asks me about his—” A pause. “His second life, with eyes like scared child. Why bother? Why worry? She must embrace this opportunity without doubt or regret. Have many children.”

Shackleton closed her eyes, blotting out the dappled shade of the apple tree overhead. “I am missing something.” She tapped her fingers on her knee, plate clinking. With a sigh, she considered this last thought at length before drifting into a state of half-sleep, ghoul at her side.

It was difficult to shake the feeling that the fear in Grael’s eyes hadn’t been for Raiek, but for her

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.” 

Fireworks

Every Fourth of July the local orchestra put on this fantastic rendition of the “1812 Overture.” My friends and I watched, sprawled on tattered blankets and aging plastic lawn chairs at the back of the green, agreeably wasted on cheap sangria and Smuttynose. An ancient dude in the percussion section glared furiously at his bass drum, mallets trembling. Each time the score called for cannon fire to punctuate the boastful fragments of La Marseillaise, he summoned his entire body to swing the mallet, jowls shaking as he delivered a single, tremendous blow to the head of the drum. In each resonating boom, he was the entire Russian Army reveling at France’s imminent retreat.

I spent a long minute trying to explain the history of the piece, how we’d co-opted someone else’s victory celebration to commemorate our own, but Dan produced a suspicious pair of bottle rockets he’d proudly constructed pre-boozefest, mercifully cutting short my inevitably boring diversion.

Bottle rockets, Dan explained, were an ancient incendiary art. You needed a measured handful of black powder (sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate), a paper tube, a guide stick, a few “secret ingredients,” and a fast-burning fuel to kick it off the ground. His fuel of choice was what professional pyros call a “whistle mix,” named for its obnoxious high-pitched whine. Combine seventy-percent potassium perchlorate and thirty-percent sodium benzoate and carefully ram it into the tube with a hydraulic press. When ignited, the fuel strobes, producing a gas that burns in a rapid on-off cycle and screams. As for that secret ingredient? Despite Dan’s insisted mystery, it wasn’t exactly hard to figure out. Only so many metals burned off bright-yellow scintilla, and sodium sulfate, the crack version of sulfuric acid, was a relatively common item in any chemist’s closet.

Dan happened to be said chemist. We tittered as he jammed the rocket into the soft grass beside the blanket and waited for the next gleeful chorus of La Marseillaise.

“Check this shit out,” he said, flipping an orange Bic from his pocket and holding it to the fuse. It lit instantly. The rocket fizz-walloped into the air just as the bass drum thundered, shrieking merrily over the heads of children and blanket-bedecked grandparents. Everyone (save Dan, who shot to his feet, straining to follow the rocket’s trajectory toward the concert shell) dove to the grass. Kate dumped the last Solo cup of sangria onto a smoldering corner of our blanket.

I gasped as the homemade firework hit its apex and crash-landed Challenger style into the brass section in a lopsided burst of yellow stars. “BOOM,” cried the bass drum. The Fourth of July picnickers exploded into shouts. Families tripped over coolers and fell out of chairs, frantically dialed 911, and searched the skies for hijacked planes. The rocket ricocheted off a music stand, igniting a half-inch pile of sheet music, and nailed the nearest trumpet player. Dan hastily stuffed the second rocket into his pants, and the rest of us lab junkies climbed wide-eyed to our feet. This was it.

The orchestra flailed wildly, a cacophony of tipped stands and reedy squeals. I watched in amazement as the players scrambled off stage in an indeterminable wash of white and black—a stampede of instrument-laden penguins. One of the trombone players looked like he’d gotten the flaming music under control, or had at least stomped it into submission. In the distance, a Doppler peal of sirens clamored into existence. I silently reminded myself never to disturb any of Dan’s research projects.

“Fiona,” Kate hissed, hazarding another squinting glance at the stage. “I think someone’s hurt up there.”

“Maybe we should be going?” I asked, chewing the corner of my lip, but found myself motivating toward the concert shell after nestling my Smuttynose IPA between the now-damp blanket and the Coleman. Dammit.

“Should’ve used mortars,” Dan remonstrated at my retreating back, as though clucking his tongue at some other explosives amateur. “Can’t accidentally redirect after ignition.”

Before any of us could think better of it, I stumbled through the melee of panicked revelers who waited for the reassurances of emergency response. They parted naturally. That’s the thing about crowds—they either behave patiently for anyone who looks like they might have a fucking clue, or they tear you to pieces. I was too drunk to project anything beyond mild excitement, a veneer of calm in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Onstage the conductor knelt next to the trumpet player. A worried brass section surrounded them.

I swung a leg up, hauling myself over the edge of the platform. “Hey,” I offered over the immediate protests of the conductor, and promptly tripped over a trombone. It took a minute to rearrange my limbs and get back on my feet. “Listen, I’m a doctor.”

The conductor’s face screwed into the facial equivalence of a fart, but he pointed at the guy with the horn. “Simon,” he added. I bent, peering at the man at the end of the conductor’s finger.

The trumpet player lay on the stage, braced uncomfortably on his elbows. His face had a certain wry lopsidedness to it, one eye just slightly lower than the other. I couldn’t help wondering how a pair of sunglasses would sit on his nose. Even his haircut seemed a little crooked. I reluctantly dropped my gaze, cheeks heating.

Trace blood speckled a singed hole in the otherwise pristine tuxedo shirt, and I hooked the fabric aside with one finger. Just a little burn, probably. No big deal. When I opened my mouth to offer some advice about a tetanus shot, I hiccupped loudly enough to startle the conductor leaning over my shoulder. The trumpet player managed an embarrassed half grin that I found myself mirroring.

“You’re fine,” I offered instead.

“So are you.”