The air stank of smoke and blood. Kusarel felt her lungs heave and burn from the thick air as she finally landed outside Rivel, tottering a bit to the side. She heard a thud to her left, followed by heavy panting–Elkeri, beak splayed open as she gasped for breath. The flight from Tremora to Rivel had only been a day, but the polluted air made it feel as though it had been three times longer.
“My lungs feel like they’re on fire! This place really is a mess,” Elkeri hissed, jerking her head toward Rivel. Like Tremora, walls flanked this city on all sides, stabbing far up into the sky. Unlike Tremora, gaping holes leered from the walls, exposing broken buildings and smog on the other side. Hordes of soldiers were stationed at these gaps, and more than a few of them seemed to be glaring in their direction.
Kusarel hadn’t even managed to recover enough air to respond when she felt a sharp point digging into her wing. With a yelp, she jolted back against Elkeri, almost forcing her to the ground.
“Kusarel, what on earth–” Elkeri started, only to sputter off suddenly as her eyes fixed on something behind Kusarel. Or, more accurately, someone.
“Hold it you two, unless you want a spear through your wings,” growled a deep voice. Kusarel peered up to make eye contact with a guard, towering over the two of them with a vicious glower. She jabbed the spear into her side again, and this time, Kusarel saw all the caked blood over its jagged edge.
“I’m on the horned one, Iona,” another guard spoke from the side. Kusarel glanced over and saw Elkeri had a spear pointed to her throat now, every bit as brutal in appearance as the first. Instead of fighting back, her friend stood as still as possible, eyes widened and ears straight up. The sight made Kusarel’s breath come faster; if Elkeri was scared, they were in deep trouble.
“State your business now,” the first guard, Iona, snapped.
Still struggling for breath and frozen from fear, she could only let out a strangled little chirp. Elkeri cleared her throat a few times before finally speaking, her voice filled with an unusual strain.
“We’re here to meet a relative. A guard at Tremora told us he was here.”
The second guard gave a bitter laugh, the force thrusting the spear just a bit closer to Elkeri’s throat.
“No one comes to Rivel to meet someone, unless they’re rebels and thieves. So, which one are you?”
Kusarel inched toward Elkeri, pressing up against her side. Her heart hammered so violently she feared her veins would pop, ending her life before the guards could even thrust their weapons through her. She raised her head a small bit, looking up at Iona once again. This time, the guard had an odd look on her face as she scrutinized Kusarel, as though trying to place her. Kusarel met her gaze for an instant, and she saw uncertainty lurking there, muddying the rage and authority that had been there moments before.
“Hakel, wait a minute–” Iona began, but the second guard drowned her out as she snarled at Elkeri, throwing insults and threats with gleaming eyes. Elkeri only stood there in perfect stillness, avoiding eye contact with her harasser.
“You know what we do with your kind? Sometimes, we lock them up for life. But if I have it MY way…”
Hakel finally shut her beak and glared at her partner, swishing her tail through the air. “Fine. What’s so important?”
“This gryphon.” Iona poked a talon at Kusarel, her claw quivering so much she grazed her side.
Why is she shaking? I’m about as unintimidating as you can get. She looked down at her own shaking legs, her fear plain for all to see.
“What about her?” The guard squinted at Kusarel, first in disdain and then confusion. She cocked her head to the side, scratching her ear. “…Huh. She does look familiar.”
“More than familiar. She looks like Apael.”
The air went still, silent except for the crackling of flames somewhere in the distance. Hakel continued to stare at Kusarel, puzzlement changing to shock and then fear as recognition clicked in her eyes. Kusarel and Elkeri shot each other a glance, silently asking one another what was going on. A few moments passed before Elkeri turned away and spoke up, straightening her shoulders and spreading her wings just enough to give the air of confidence.
“Oh, you finally noticed. Kusarel here is Apael’s cousin. She’s here to meet him.”
Who on earth is Apael? Kusarel inwardly screamed, but she kept her beak clamped shut. Elkeri seemed to think they had an in, and she trusted her judgment.
Both guards leapt back like they had been caressed with a torch. Hakel let out stuttered sounds as she dropped her spear, backing away from the two of them.
“I…I’m so sorry! I didn’t know. Please forgive me!”
“Forgive us,” Iona corrected, bowing her head. With her feathers and wings pressed against her sides in terror, the guard looked like only a sliver of her size from before.
“Forgive you?” Elkeri started, swelling up and clicking her beak. “You didn’t even give us a chance to explain ourselves! Calling us criminals. What would Apael think of that, huh?”
Both of the guards muttered hasty apologies and bowed lower.
“Any punishment Apael inflicts on us is just, being the Claw of the Empress. We await his judgment.”
What are they babbling about? Why are they so afraid? Kusarel tried to meet eyes with Elkeri again, but her friend kept her gaze locked on the guards, once again filled with blazing energy.
“Glad to hear it. Now let us into Rivel already. We don’t want to keep him waiting any longer.”
With frantic squeaks, the guards scurried forward and lifted the gate open, Iona trembling so much her claws slipped off the metal multiple times.
Kusarel felt guilt prick at her insides as she watched them, wanting nothing more than to apologize and let them know they were safe. She knew doing so would be incredibly risky, though, so she continued to keep quiet and trotted along after Elkeri, who strutted through the entrance with her beak pointed to the sky.
As they passed, the guards flared their wings in a salute and yelled in perfect unison, “Hail the Empress! All glory to our Lady Ardhelia!”
She only gave a small nod, but that seemed to be enough. As soon as their tails flicked through the entrance, the guards slammed the gate down and scampered away, giving them no time to say anything else. They were finally alone.
“Kusarel, be honest with me. Do you have family out here?” Elkeri said in a low voice. Now that the guards were out of sight, she held her shoulders hunched and tense, walking close to the ground in a stealth-like stance. A quick look around explained her behavior; all around them loomed decrepit buildings, half-burned and crumbling. Abandoned belongings littered the cracked path, many so marred Kusarel could no longer tell what they once were. From the shadows, she thought she could make out gryphons watching them, flitting away as soon as she looked their way.
“Not that I know of,” she finally managed to respond. She tried to keep her voice as quiet as possible, but it seemed to echo throughout the city, splitting the silence around them. With a wince, she quickened her pace so she was right by Elkeri’s side.
“Weird, just weird,” her friend mumbled, almost to herself. “I guess it’s possible this Apael is a long-lost relative, right?”
While the thought of meeting any family should have filled her with joy, she only felt a tight knot in her chest. Even if he is a relative, those soldiers were so scared. Do I want to meet him?
As though reading her thoughts, Elkeri added, “Let’s try to steer clear of him, ok? We’ll meet Xaiel and fly out before this mystery gryphon has any idea we’re here.”
Kusarel murmured her agreement, more than willing to keep her distance. Anyone who could make guards cower like that had to be dangerous…and, judging by the wasteland around her, she had more than enough danger to suit her just fine. The thought of her brother fighting here, forced to battle in this forsaken place, made bile rise in the back of her throat.
Where are you, Xaiel?
Please, please be okay.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”