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.

The Osprey

The osprey understands the physics of falling

feet-first—talons snatching at soft bellies

shifting beneath the murky surface—and emerging with

nothing save a spray of salt. Mottled wings row

a steady beat, breaking the shallows’ grasp and carving

a tight trajectory clear into the clouds. Its ochre eyes

sight a second flicker of shadowed water. Later,

briny morsels dangling from the hooked grin,

the osprey whistles, tips a beady wink:

the trick, madame, is always being hungry.

A most unapologetic predator.

I am salt water

When I step off the floating dock into the dragon boat, a clammy band of anxiety cinches my chest. The boat sways precariously as my teammates hop in and adjust themselves, easing their weight to the rails. I white knuckle my paddle, focusing on drums sounding over the water. A moment later, I identify my unease.

It’s been eight years since I nearly drowned.

As someone who grew up with the ocean, this shouldn’t seem so remarkable. There’s always a brief terror as you’re dragged backwards through the trough of a wave and the crest breaks over your head, temporarily trapping you beneath a surge of water; and just when you’re sure you won’t be able to claw back to the surface, the water calms. The power passes.

The ocean requires a requisite surrender of control to enjoy.

~

It was one of the older shells, a wooden four-person relic at least twice as heavy to carry to the dock as its more modern, fiberglass descendant, but we bore the weight with a certain measure of curmudgeonly pride. As one, we hefted the boat up and over our heads and rested the rails on our shoulders. Furrows carved into our skin as we trudged down to the docks with our burden. No, we told our teammates, it’s really not that heavy.

Crude, lace-up shoes decorated each foot board. As we haphazardly balanced into the narrow shell, we slipped our feet into the oversized footwear and laced them tightly to avoid slippage. The shoes were nailed to the boards.

We pushed off from the dock just before six a.m., fog of our breath punctuating each stroke. We strained in unison, hyper cognizant of the person in front of us, of the feather and sweep of the oars’ blades. We knifed across the bay, bioluminescent plankton lighting our wake. Catch, check, feather, release, repeat. The rhythm stuttered only once, faltering as a teammate caught the edge of her blade in a small wave. Our momentum compounded the error. The blade jacked the shell like an emergency brake, flipping us toward her buried oar.

Time is fickle. When I replay the capsize, we should have had plenty of time to haul our asses onto the rails and right the boat before it became unrecoverable. We should have been able to reach down and unlace the shoes. In reality it happened in seconds. The shell turtled, shiny wooden hull beaming toward the dark sky, and—still laced to the boat—the water dragged us under. Bay water flooded my mouth and saturated my sweatshirt. The shock of cold water immediately deadened my limbs. I didn’t even think about the other rowers.

I floundered in mute panic, choking as I scrambled to detach myself, to juke my body into a position that would allow my head to break the surface. Wood connected with my skull just as my fingers managed to unknot the laces. Oblivious to the pain, I kicked free from the boat and my teammates, rocketing to the surface. I coughed explosively, water pouring from my mouth and nostrils, and draped my body over a floating oar. Shivering, weighed down by my sodden clothing, I tried my best not to vomit. An eternity of blankness had passed in less than thirty seconds. 

The four of us bobbed in the center of the bay, gently drifting with the current. We said nothing. By the time the crash boat arrived, we were trembling, unable to pull ourselves up and over the sides into safety. Our coach hauled each of us out of the water, raking our skin over the metal gunwales. We stripped away the wet clothes and huddled in misery, willing warmth into our pale bodies.

Rowers don’t wear life jackets.   

~

This river is a trickle compared to the Atlantic. We’re not alone. I’m bundled into a long boat with twenty people, and hundreds of spectators in colorful tents line the banks. I remind myself that a caught paddle will do little more than slow us down. I raise my arms, paddle poised above the water. Our flag catcher huddles near the head of the dragon, waiting to launch himself over the bow.

The gong sounds. For eight seconds, I fly. 

 

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.” 

Asking For It

The sun hasn’t come up yet.

A young woman briefly checks the weather on her mobile phone, notes the unseasonably warm temperatures predicted for the afternoon, and selects a summery dress from her closet. She hurriedly finishes her morning ablutions, fills an aluminum tumbler with coffee, forgets to snag her pre-packed lunch from the refrigerator, and zooms out the door.

At work, she spends four and a half hours sorting through e-mails, crafting new product language, and organizing RFP responses. When she finally decides that it’s time for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee, she grabs her key, purse, and badge, and takes the elevator to the first floor.

It’s a beautiful day. She sees a glorious blue sky beyond the glass double doors: lots of sunshine, obscured only by a fine haze in the distance. But when she passes through the turnstiles and opens the building doors, a strong gust of wind blows her entire dress over her face. Though she always tries to be viewed as a professional, anyone with a window and a pair of eyes can see her snug blue underwear and veiny thighs (which she is particularly ashamed of). The mobile weather report apparently failed to describe the blustery character of the day.

Red faced, head low, she clamps the flimsy material back down over her hips and retreats to her car as fast as her heels will allow. 

“Well,” the wind says to anyone who will listen. “Did you see what she was wearing? She was totally asking for it.”