Not a single gryphon dared approach them as they navigated through the shattered city. Some gryphons continued to watch from the sidelines, scrutinizing Kusarel and Elkeri with wary eyes. Others squawked and fluttered away once they saw Kusarel, a few throwing seething curses at her before slinking off. Their words made her feathers stand on edge, her whole body shivering from a strange mixture of shame and dread.
“Don’t let them get to you,” Elkeri whispered, scowling at the latest harasser before they slipped into the shadows. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
She murmured a quick thanks, but that didn’t squelch her feelings of guilt. She may not have done anything, but the citizens here thought she was apparently related to Apael, whoever he was. And their judgment made her want to apologize, explaining she didn’t mean them any harm and she was sorry for whatever this Apael had done.
Of course, no one was going to give her that chance, so she kept plodding behind Elkeri, trying to keep her gaze focused on her friend.
“Any idea where Xaiel might be?” Kusarel piped up, more as a distraction than anything.
“Beats me. This whole place is a mess. He could be anywhere.” Elkeri kicked a pile of rubble at her feet, sending it straight into a torn-down statue of a gryphon, covered in silver armor. Looking closer, Kusarel could see the “armor” was actually part of its skin, as though the gryphon had been born with metal instead of feathers in some areas.
“Godslayer statue,” Elkeri noted, giving it an admiring look. “No wonder this city is known for rebellion, though. The gryphons here must really hate the Empress.”
“Why is its skin like that?” Kusarel asked, still staring at the dust-covered statue. Something about the apparent fusion of armor into its body made her feel uncomfortable, like she was looking at something unnatural.
Elkeri gave her a funny look, one ear cocked back in disbelief, before she let out a hoot of laughter. “Right, we hung out with different groups. I forgot you wouldn’t know much about the Godslayer. Too sheltered.”
“Mother would have shrieked if I spent time with your friends,” she muttered, feeling a bit defensive.
“Oh, trust me, I know. That’s what made them so much fun,” Elkeri chuckled. “But anyway, that’s the Godslayer’s power. Armor and insane strength. It makes them a beast, great for taking out corrupt rulers. If only we had one today,” she added under her breath, glowering at the ruins around them.
She was about to hiss at Elkeri not to declare treason in public when a high-pitched scream rattled through the air, filled with sheer terror. They both froze on the spot, one of Kusarel’s front claws dangling in the air as she stopped mid-step.
“Did you hear that?” she stuttered, forcing the words out as she tried to move her beak as little as possible.
“No Kusarel, I went deaf for a second and missed the eardrum-popping scream,” Elkeri snapped back, pupils dilated.
She started to apologize when the wailing came again, broken up by racking sobs. Above it she heard the shouting of another gryphon, coming from the same location.
“Please, sir, he’s just a cub! We don’t need to hurt him.”
A cold voice boomed over the others, piercing under Kusarel’s skin like a ragged knife. “The Empress ordered all members of the resistance and their family to be executed. That includes the cub. Defying her is an act of treason, soldier.”
Elkeri made choked noises, as though something was lodged in her throat. “Is that…Kusarel, did you hear?”
She wanted to come up with a sarcastic retort now that Elkeri was asking if she had heard, but the thought of the booming voice stilled her tongue. There was something not quite right about that voice, something so unsettling that it made her insides twist in on themselves. It sounded incredibly familiar, like she had heard it many, many times in the past, but never like that, with that mix between cruelty and apathy. She knew deep down that the voice should never sound like that, but why on earth would she feel that way?
“That was Xaiel!” she squeaked, nearly falling over as her whole body began to shiver and tremble.
“So I’m not going crazy. But Xaiel…would never say something like that,” Elkeri said, staring off in the direction of the voices. She threw her head back to fix Kusarel with a determined glance, then reared back and shot into the sky. “We’re going over there. Now.”
Kusarel flared her wings and followed after her, though she was shaking so badly that she feared she would fall straight out of the sky. That was him, wasn’t it? But…it sounded like he wanted to kill that cub. Because the Empress ordered it…?
By the sky, Xaiel, what’s going on?
A few moments later and they zipped over a line of buildings, landing in the remains of a plaza. A lone cub pressed himself against the wall of a house, covering his eyes with stubby little claws as he howled in fear. In front of him stood a soldier, protecting the cub from another gryphon with silver and black feathers just like Kusarel’s. His back was to Kusarel, but she didn’t need to see his face to know immediately it was her brother.
“If you don’t stand aside now, I’m reporting you for treason,” Xaiel thundered in a deep voice. The soldier winced, but continued to stand his ground as he blocked the cub from harm.
“Xaiel! What is WRONG with you?” Elkeri screeched, making both the cub and the soldier jump. Kusarel scrambled back before recovering herself, stepping forward to stand next to her friend. He’s your brother, Kusarel! I’m sure we can figure out what’s going on. Don’t be afraid.
Her mental reassurances didn’t do much to calm the sinking feeling that something was very, very wrong. Maybe that wasn’t Xaiel…maybe this was the strange, foreign Apael.
But he sounded just like Xaiel and looked just like him. How would Xaiel have a twin like this?
Her mind continued to spin as the silver and black gryphon turned around, zeroing in on the two of them with bright, frigid eyes. Kusarel couldn’t help but take a step back, her internal pep talk vanishing under that alien stare. Those were Xaiel’s eyes, physically, at least. But his eyes had never contained such malice and scrutiny, like a predator examining the prey before it.
“Who are you talking to?” Understanding seemed to snap into place in those hateful eyes, and he advanced forward with his shoulders arched like a hyena, talons spread wide as they dug into the dirt. “That’s the name of the cub, isn’t it? You know him, which means you must be part of the resistance, too.”
Even Elkeri seemed to be at a loss for words, her beak moving soundlessly. She looked at Kusarel out of the corner of her eyes, begging her to say something.
With her tail curled between her legs, Kusarel managed to say, “Xaiel, she’s talking to you. You know Elkeri. Right?”
She hated the way her voice curved upward at the end, squeaking like the mice she would hunt for afternoon snacks. Still, she managed to keep herself from fleeing the other way, locking her muscles into place even as every part of her screamed to get out now.
Those eyes shifted away from Elkeri to land on her. A few seconds passed in a silent staredown until his look started to change; some of the malice slipped away, replaced by confusion and what almost seemed to be surprise. He stepped forward once again, this time straight at her with that same wolf-like slink.
“Who are you? You look just like me.” He continued to examine her with that unfaltering gaze, adding, “And you seem very familiar. But I can’t place you.”
A squawk tore from Kusarel’s beak before she could stop herself, shock and horror overriding her fear. “You’re my brother, Xaiel! Stop kidding around already. Now isn’t the time for your jokes and you know it!”
He ruffled his feathers and replied, “I don’t joke. And I am most definitely not your brother. The Empress told me I have no family, other than her.”
Her mind went blank at his words, unable to process or understand what he was saying. What is he talking about? What’s wrong with him?
“Are…are you Apael?” she asked in a quivering voice. She lowered her eyes to his beak, the exact same shade of gray as Xaiel’s, the same length, the same tiny little scar from when a branch whacked him head-on back in their cub days.
He tilted his head to the side, staring at her with one eye. Her stomach nearly heaved as she saw, with a shivering tingle, that his beak was serrated like a butcher’s knife.
That’s not like Xaiel, not at all. That’s not normal. She had never seen a gryphon with a jagged beak like that. It was uncanny, unnatural.
“Yes, I’m Apael. The Claw of the Empress. I serve her with full loyalty.”
She couldn’t take it any longer. Weeks of being away from her family, of wondering if she’d ever see any of them again, ate away at the reason in her mind. Filled with roaring desperation, she spread her wings and jumped forward to embrace him, just like she had done many times in the past. “Please, Xaiel, I’ve missed you so–“
Her words cut into a howl of pain as something slashed across her face, ripping into her skin and tearing apart her flesh bit by bit. Blood dripped down into her eyes as she vaguely processed the fact that his claws were now serrated too, apparently. She didn’t have time to feel revulsion as Apael pounced on her, throwing her to the ground as he beat his wings.
“Traitor! You attack me, you attack the Empress!” he roared, that horrible jagged beak leering right up into her face. He jabbed the point down to ram into her throat, but she rolled away and kicked at him with her hindlegs, sending him careening away.
“She wasn’t attacking you, idiot! She was trying to hug you!” Elkeri shouted, lurching forward. Apael sprung to his feet with terrifying speed and lunged at Kusarel again before Elkeri could intervene, talons curled and aiming for her throat once again. The thought of fleeing fluttered through her mind, but there was no time. She tucked in her wings and barreled out of the way, and before Apael could recover, she bore down on him, pinning his torso down with her front claws. He bellowed and kicked at her, but she kept her weight pressed down on him, doing her best to keep her talons from drawing blood. Elkeri appeared at her side, standing right next to her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted–“
Taking advantage of her distraction, Apael whipped his head and stabbed his beak into her chest. The edges ripped open a gaping wound, and another wave of pain laced through her as she yelped and fell back. His eyes appeared over her, full of killing intent, and he raised a claw to slash her once again.
“Enough already!” Elkeri cried as she stamped her claws down on the ground. A thick vine reared to life from the soil and wound around Apael’s legs, wrenching him back and away from Kusarel.
“What? How did you do that?” Apael craned his head back to stare at the vine, finally seeming to have been zapped back to reality.
“Farmer powers. It’s what I do.”
He looked at her like she was a crazed, flighty parrot. “Farmers don’t fight.”
“Well, this one does,” Elkeri said with a hint of exasperation. “And lay off Kusarel already. YOU’RE the one who started the fight, not her.”
Kusarel leapt back as Apael rose to his feet in a jerky fashion, tearing at the vines with that cruel beak. “She clearly came at me with the intention to fight. Who approaches someone with spread wings like that?”
Family does, Kusarel thought with a heavy heart. The realization that this wasn’t Xaiel–or at least, not Xaiel as she knew him–was slowly starting to set in, as much as she wanted to deny it.
“Oh, drop it already! She had you pinned. She could have torn open your belly, but she didn’t.”
Apael blinked multiple times, fixing Kusarel with a curious gaze. “That’s true…hmm.” With a fluff of his feathers, he turned his back to them and glanced over his shoulder. “I’ll let it slide, then. Besides, I have work to do.” He kept his eyes locked on Kusarel, something soft seeping into his expression. “You really do look familiar, though.”
And with that, he took off into the air, the gusts from his powerful wings making Kusarel stagger. As he left, her adrenaline rush started to drip away, and she felt the full brunt of the fresh wounds on her chest and face. Whimpering, she lowered herself to the ground, her vision becoming dark and hazy.
“Kusarel? Hey, Kusarel! Are you alright?”
She heard someone calling her in the distance, probably Elkeri. But the sound was too muddled, like it was coming through water from somewhere far off. She tried to at least reply back, but her tongue wouldn’t listen to her as her mind grew foggy. The last thing she saw was Elkeri leaning over her before she slipped away into unconsciousness.
© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”