As they walked down the streets of Shamais, Kusarel couldn’t help but stare at the strange world around her. Her feathers were pressed against her body, making her look half her size and announcing to everyone she was quite nervous, but she didn’t care right now. From all sides came the squeals and chirps of more gryphons than she had ever seen in her life, scampering about and bumping into one another in the crowded city. Even the sky above was packed, filled with gryphons flying up to the higher levels of Shamais. Broad walkways stretched from tower to tower, looming far above her and Elkeri. She could just barely make out shops and stalls on some of them, while others appeared to contain dens, chiseled from a stone that glimmered with hues of blue and black in the sun. The same stone had been used for the path they walked on now, and she could have sworn the buildings around had diamonds embedded around their entrances–or if not diamonds, crystals of some sort that sent waves of light spiraling across the city.
“I thought Tremora was amazing, but this…” Kusarel waved a claw, taken in by all the brilliance and wealth around her.
“Crazy, right? I’m just glad no one is giving us any trouble.” Elkeri gestured to her wispy green feathers, trailing behind her head like a veil. A couple other farmers passed by and gave them quick nods, though they kept their eyes down. Scanning the area, Kusarel realized Shamais was packed with a mix of power feathers. There were plenty of high-ranking gryphons, of course: Elemental wielders like Yatalo, some with orange feathers like his, others with teal or gray feathers for controlling water or the wind, respectively. Gryphons with black power feathers, so dark they seemed immune to the light all around; she had only seen a couple of them back in Kryga, but she knew they could bend and shape minerals with great ease. The ones she saw here were likely behind the sprawling architecture of Shamais.
Yet there were also middle-class gryphons, like the merchants who so deftly sold their wares, born with the gift of charisma and golden feathers to match. Weavers with a crown of sunflower-yellow feathers atop their heads, shooting out silk from their wrists to turn into cloth products. And then there were the lower classes, like the farmers and copiers, all keeping their heads down, but still milling around the others.
“It seems less segregated here than the other cities,” Kusarel voiced, trying to take in the rainbow of feathers all around her.
“Probably because Shamais is so huge. I’m sure we’d still get treated like seagull droppings if we talked to anyone, though.” Elkeri squinted her eyes at a nearby blacksmith, who was shouting at a copier bowing before him. “But as long as we don’t bring attention to ourselves, we can just blend in.”
She couldn’t help but sigh in relief at those words. Whether it was her blank status or her resemblance to Apael, Kusarel couldn’t help but feel she had been in the spotlight much too often lately. Being able to walk around without anyone staring, jeering, or stuttering in fear made her wings feel lighter. Her feathers puffed out a bit as she relaxed, realizing they were invisible and unimportant here.
“Alright, so where do you think Apael would be?” Elkeri rose up a bit on her hind legs, craning her neck toward the sky as she surveyed the area. “This place is just massive.”
“Well, he is a soldier. He’s probably either patrolling or at the palace.”
Her friend gave a nod, horns shimmering from the splash of colors all around. “Makes sense. I’d be willing to bet he’s not patrolling this area, though. Everyone seems too relaxed.”
With a sinking heart, Kusarel had to admit Elkeri had a point. Wherever Apael had been, he left a feeling of terror in his wake, as they had experienced firsthand in all the cities they had visited. This light atmosphere wasn’t right at all.
“So we have to find an area that feels more tense, then. Or go right up to the palace. Just great,” Kusarel muttered. She couldn’t help but wish they could just lope around here for a while instead, taking in the sights while hidden in the crowd. It was foreign and overwhelming, yes, but at least she felt unnoticed and fairly safe.
“Hey, you’re the one who wants to do this, remember? I’m all for just hanging around here, but I don’t think we’re going to find your brother that way.”
With a disheartened nod, Kusarel trotted over to one of the open areas along the side of the path, meant for gryphons to spread their wings and take flight. She took to the air with a few practiced wing beats, and Elkeri followed after a moment, hanging just a bit behind her. The air shot between her feathers as they ascended, passing all the gryphons as they aimed right for the highest point of the city. They finally stopped after a minute to hover just above the towers and all the walkways below. Kusarel took the lead as she glided in a circle around Shamais, eyes locked below her as she scanned the sprawling city.
“Both of you, stop!” a voice bellowed out from behind. Freezing in midair, she whipped her head around and saw a guard blazing toward them, covered in full silver armor. He shot right up to them and scowled, flaring his talons too close for comfort.
“Flying above the towers is forbidden. You need to fly below the notch, or I’ll drag you off to the nearest prison.” The guard nodded at carved arrows on each tower Kusarel hadn’t noticed before, a good twenty feet down from their height.
“Forbidden? Who cares where we fly?” Elkeri spat, bringing her wings back in a flaring arc. Kusarel managed to lay a claw on her shoulders right before she could advance on the guard, pulling Elkeri back.
“Let’s just go lower, Elkeri. I don’t want to get in a fight.”
“You should listen to your friend,” the guard said as he inclined his head toward Kusarel. “Random gryphons flying this high up is a security issue. You need to stay lower so everyone is contained. Understood?”
“Fine, fine. I can’t stand stupid laws, though,” Elkeri grumbled. She threw off Kusarel’s claw with a shrug and fluttered down, making angry hissing sounds the whole way. Kusarel started to follow her before the guard flew into her path, forcing her to fall back.
“Hold up.” His eyes trailed down to her scar, lingering there for longer than seemed necessary. “That’s quite a nasty wound there. It almost looks like something serrated you.”
“Oh, um, it’s nothing. Not a big deal.” She flapped her wings and inched forward, passing the guard hesitantly. He didn’t stop her, but continued to scrutinize her with a strange look before flying off, leaving her and Elkeri alone once again.
“What was that about? I couldn’t hear you from down here.” Elkeri nudged her with a concerned expression, watching the guard disappear into one of the towers.
“I don’t know. He was staring at my scar and mentioned it looked serrated.”
“Why would he care, though? It’s none of his business. Just like us flying above the towers,” she added with a growl.
“Elkeri, I bet he knows Apael clawed me. And if he does–“
Her words disappeared under the yells of many gryphons behind her, but one voice cut through all the rest. Filled with horror, she slowly pivoted in the air as a silver and black gryphon appeared in her vision, flanked by several soldiers.
“Your feathers might be dyed, but it’s definitely you. That scar and pendant prove it.” He thrust a talon right at her chest, the edges jagged like the tooth of a wicked beast. Kusarel let out a strangled squeak, mind frozen in terror as she cowered before him.
It was Apael, and he had found them first.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”