Twin Feathers: Chapter 16

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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”

Twin Feathers: Chapter 15

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She was becoming stronger. The realization hit her as the days passed by, filled with flying by sunlight and then resting at night. Her muscles had screamed at her during the short flight to Tremora; now, she only felt an irritating ache, more a dull soreness than the stabbing pain from before.

Though in all fairness, part of the reason could be that she was getting much better sleep now. Every evening, they would circle around until they found a nearby settlement. Some were tiny little villages, similar to her hometown Kryga, which made her heart flutter in a strange mix of joy and loss. Others sprawled in all directions for miles, larger than Rivel. Despite the differences in size, Kusarel and Elkeri received the same treatment everywhere. The local gryphons always stared at Kusarel with widened eyes, filled with terror, and before long they were being offered the very best: Bedding at the roomiest inns, freshly-caught fish, silken blankets for the night and down cushions, putting her family’s belongings to shame.

She laced her claws through one of these blankets, marveling at its smoothness. A burst of guilt ran through her and shattered her admiration, leaving her feeling uncomfortable and lost once again.

“Elkeri? Is this ok?” She waved all around their room, a private chamber stocked with more food than they could possibly eat in a week. A breeze wafted through one of the many open windows, ruffling the tapestries covering the walls.

Elkeri held up a talon as she downed the last of her meal–some sort of expensive rabbit and herb dish, from the looks of it. Grasping her talons around a jug, she took a swaggering gulp, some of the juice dribbling down the sides of her beak.

“Absolutely. Not our fault if they think we’re related to Apael. I’m not gonna stop them from buttering us up.” She stared into the pits of the jug before muttering, “Especially after Tremora. And back home.”

Kusarel felt her face burn as she turned away, silently cursing herself. Of course Elkeri would be fine with this; she’d endured poor treatment due to her status for a while now, longer than Kusarel. This was the first break Elkeri had gotten in a long time from the strict hierarchy, and here was Kusarel, feeling guilty and wanting to turn all of this down. A fresh wave of shame washed over her at the thought of taking this away from her best friend.

“Get that look off your face,” Elkeri said, pushing a heaping plate of shrimp delicacies her way. “Tomorrow, we’ll be in Shamais. We only have one more day left, and I’m going to enjoy it.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered, pecking at the food without much enthusiasm. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“You didn’t have to. Your face said it all.”

She stabbed at one of the shrimps a bit too violently, spearing it halfway down her beak. Elkeri let out a snigger as Kusarel scowled and pried it off with her claws, leaving a slimy residue on her face.

“I should really wear a mask around you. It’s not fair how well you read me,” she grumbled, forcing down the offending food as a distraction more than anything.

“Oh! We need to figure out your disguise, don’t we?” With a drawn-out squeak, Elkeri rose up and stretched her front legs far in front of her, claws flaring and digging into the wood below. “I’m thinking we dye your feathers. Good idea?”
She only shrugged in response, lashing her tail in agitation. The turmoil in her belly just wouldn’t settle, that horrible nagging feeling that they were walking right into danger. Trying to find something to drown her anxiety, she squinted up at a tapestry near the window, shimmering in the fading sunlight. The metallic silver background reminded her of Apael, and she lurched her eyes away with a shudder.

“You could wear a mask, but that’s probably too obvious. Right?”

“I don’t care, Elkeri. Do whatever you want.”

“Hey now.” Elkeri crouched to lock eyes with her, cocking her head to the side. “This was your idea, remember? Going after Apael? Don’t get all grumbly with me.”

She was right, of course. This was her idea, and every part of herself hated that. The closer they had traveled to Shamais, the more her awful inner voice had piped up, predicting death and injury and failure. It whispered to her that perhaps she should just give this all up. Stay here, in whatever city this was, and live as nobles for as long as they could get away with it. Then they would move on to another area, burying thoughts of Xaiel with gluttony and vice.

But she had to do it. She still knew, deep down, that she would never forgive herself if she gave up on Xaiel, leaving him to whatever bizarre fate he had received from the Empress. The coolness from her mother’s pendant wafted down her chest, and she ran her talons across its rounded front. Her mother may think she was dead, permanently cut off from the family, but of course Kusarel knew better. She was still part of the family, and she couldn’t just leave them be now.

“I’m sorry…I’m just nervous. But the dye sounds like a good idea, I think.”

Elkeri gave a content purr and pushed herself back up, trotting over to the door. “I’ll go get some dye, then. Bet I can get it for free, since they all seem to know I’m connected to you.” She chuckled as she walked through the exit, leaving Kusarel alone.

The silence around her pressed in, and she huddled in a corner, folding her legs underneath her and her tail over her head. If she tried hard enough, she could pretend she was back at home, sleeping on the bedding in her room.

She would do anything to make that a reality.

What felt like an eternity passed before Elkeri barged back into their room, humming an upbeat tune to herself. Kusarel couldn’t help but feel even more tense, put off by her friend’s happiness.

“Stop your sulking and get over here. I’m going to dye you.” Elkeri plopped down near the window, organizing a few jars filled with unknown liquids. At Kusarel’s refusal to get up, she leaped over and grabbed her by the foreleg, dragging her over. “And then you’re going to have fun and enjoy yourself the rest of the day. It’s not everyday we get to live like royalty.”

“But tomorrow is Shamais,” she murmured, more talking to herself than anything.

“Yes–tomorrow. Not today. Don’t let tomorrow ruin today.”

I think it’s too late for that, she thought, but she kept her dissent to herself. She didn’t want to ruin Elkeri’s good time, if nothing else. Her friend deserved a fun, happy day before they both died a horrifying death at the claws of her twin.

….Maybe I do need to relax a bit.

She did her best to relax her muscles, letting go of the tension that had been building up for days. The dye felt refreshing against her feathers as Elkeri worked it in, still chirping a joyous song Kusarel remembered from her childhood days.

“We’re gonna look like sisters once you’re done. Well, minus the horns.”

With a start, Kusarel craned her neck to admire Elkeri’s handiwork. She hadn’t even wondered what color Elkeri had chosen. Sure enough, her feathers glimmered a rich brown, just like her friend’s.

“I got some gray coloring, so I’ll go ahead and try to dye your fur too, but I don’t know if it’ll take. Your fur’s so dark.”

An hour later and Elkeri had finished, huffing quietly in satisfaction. Dragging a mirror over to Kusarel, she sat beside her with raised shoulders. “Well? Pretty good, huh?”

Blinking, Kusarel couldn’t help but silently admit that Elkeri had done a decent job. Her entire front half was covered in brown feathers, not a hint of silver to be seen. The fur on her back half hadn’t turned out nearly as well, but it had changed somewhat, more of a stormy gray now instead of luscious black.

“You look good with brown feathers. Though not the gray fur. You looked much prettier with your natural black.”

Kusarel clucked a few times, giving Elkeri a sideways look. “You’re the one who chose that color, not me.”

Cuffing her with a wing, Elkeri squatted down beside her, dropping a stack of cards by their feet. “Ignoring that, we’re going to play a nice, relaxing game of cards, and you are going to enjoy it. Got it?”

“Yes, yes, I get it.” She let Elkeri set up the game as she stared out the window, gazing at the looming towers of Shamais in the distance. Tomorrow, they would reach their destination, and all this would come to an end.

Haunted by a rising dread, she drew a few cards and shifted the other way, turning her back to the window. Yet the vision of the towers burned before her eyes, a stark reminder of the tomorrow that awaited her.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 16

Twin Feathers: Chapter 14

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“You’re not going to change your mind, are you?”

Kusarel shuffled her claws, but she forced herself to look Elkeri in the eye. “No, I’m not. I’m going to find Xaiel, no matter what.”

Her friend held her gaze for multiple heart beats, her expression unreadable. The two gryphons sat outside the healer’s hut, keeping their voices low. Happy with her recovery, the healer had released Kusarel from her care and promptly shooed the two of them out the door. Apparently, she hadn’t been joking about wanting that vacation.

Just as Kusarel hadn’t been joking about wanting to follow Apael. Elkeri hadn’t brought up the topic again in over a week, while she finished recovering, but they could no longer ignore the issue.

“Ok, let’s say we find your crazy twin again. Then what?”

She felt her stomach wrench and her throat close up. This was exactly the question she had been dreading, for the simple reason that she had no clue. Every time she had wondered this herself, all she could see were cruel talons plunging deep into her flesh and pulling her apart. Her mind always froze, replaying this grim future, and she had repressed the nagging question each time.

Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. You don’t have a plan, Kusarel, and you’re too scared to even think of one!

“I’m guessing your silence means you have no idea,” Elkeri said in an emotionless voice. Her eyes glimmered like smooth stone, barring Kusarel from reading what she was thinking.

“I…I don’t know. I don’t even want to think about it.” Repulsion at herself rose up deep inside her, making her throat tighten even more. Unable to meet those hard eyes, she finally turned away, choosing to gaze at the shattered path beneath her feet instead.

A wing spread over her body and engulfed her, pulling her close in to Elkeri. “I’m not trying to be mean, Kusarel, honest. I just don’t want to see you get hurt again. It could be much, much worse next time, you know?”

Oh, she knew. Her mind insisted that she know that quite well, replaying those claws and beak coming at her without end.

“Maybe we could just watch Apael? Not let him know we’re there?” she voiced, cuddling closer to Elkeri. The feel of her friend’s feathers against her own made her feel just a bit calmer and safer, at least for the moment.

“That’s probably our best bet–just watch him and hope we can figure out what’s going on. Though we’d have to be really, really careful, Kusarel. You look just like Apael, so if word spreads he has a twin running around the city, he’ll come looking for you.”

With a short laugh, she poked Elkeri with the tip of her beak. “Of course I’ll be careful! You’re the hot-head, remember?”

“I know, but you’re the one getting all emotional about seeing Xaiel again, so I’m reminding you. No trying to hug Apael and all that.”

Kusarel gave a snort and clicked her beak, trying to give off an amused vibe she did not feel. “I’m not doing that again. I learned my lesson the first time.”

Lifting a claw, she brushed the featherless skin on her chest. The wound had healed enough to no longer need bandages, but the feathers still hadn’t grown back, leaving an ugly, jagged line for all to see. The exposed skin burned an angry red, still irritated and raw.

What if the feathers don’t grow back? I’d feel so wrong without all my feathers.

She knew it was a silly thought. With everything going on, who cared about a scar and a few lost feathers? Yet she still longed for some normalcy, and the thought of bearing a permanent sign of the worst days of her life didn’t sit well with her. She moved a talon up to cradle the pendant gifted to her by her mother, sitting just above the scar.

“You look like a war gryphon now, with that scar,” Elkeri said with a sassy little tail flick. “All fierce and battle-hardened. Ready to go fight for the Empress, Kusarel?”

She hissed and flapped her wings, pushing Elkeri away from her. Her friend only snickered in response, looking all-too pleased with herself for rubbing Kusarel the wrong way.

“I’d never fight for the Empress. She took my family away, and she ordered that cub to be killed!”

Elkeri looked at her in stillness for a few seconds before doubling over, clutching her chest as she laughed. “Now that’s just gold! Who was the one who told me and Xaiel to cut the blasphemy all the time?

Laying her ears back against her head, she sat down on her haunches and glared at Elkeri. “Alright, fine: You were right about the Empress. There, I said it. You happy now?”

“Overjoyed,” Elkeri gasped between laughs. With a few coughs, she finally managed to calm herself down. “Guess you’re one of us now. I’m so proud of you, Kusarel.”

“Thank you so much,” she muttered. With the thought of Xaiel and Apael looming over her, she didn’t much feel like joking around and giggling. Besides, Elkeri had been much too loud. She craned her neck to the side to peer around the corner, making sure no one was there listening in. Thankfully, they were still alone, the alley beside the healer’s hut remaining empty.

“Jokes aside, I’m serious.” Elkeri nudged her on the shoulder, a little more gently than usual. “You’ve handled this all really well, considering. And you did a great job fighting Apael.”

Kusarel cocked her head in disbelief. “I did a horrible job, Elkeri. That’s why I have this scar, remember?”

“Wrong. You have that scar because YOU were trying not to hurt him.” Elkeri pointed a talon at her and jabbed it with each word, as though trying to beat the meaning into Kusarel’s mind. “You pinned him down super fast, and if you were fighting for real, you would’ve killed him right there. That’s extremely impressive.”

The unexpected compliment made heat rise to her face. She mumbled something unintelligible, trying to find the right words. “But I’m bigger than him. It doesn’t count.”

“Again, wrong. He’s a soldier, remember? Red power feathers? He should be way stronger than you. But you still pinned him down.” Elkeri looked down at Kusarel with her ears perked upright, her expression a mix between tender and proud. Suddenly, her eyes switched to blazing hot, searing straight into Kusarel. “But that doesn’t mean you can approach him again, you hear? He still has serrated claws and that beak, and I KNOW you won’t fight back for real, so he’ll always have the advantage.”

Kusarel held up a claw, cutting off Elkeri before she could continue on her rant. “I understand, Elkeri. We’ll stay hidden the whole time, promise.”

Elkeri grumbled something and shook her whole body viciously, like she was trying to toss away her anger. Her horns veered a bit too close to Kusarel’s face for comfort, and she shied away. She had already been slashed near the beak once already–no need to go through that again.

“As long as you promise. But let’s get out of here. There’s no point staying in Rivel if we’re going to the city around the palace.” Elkeri pulled out the map from her bag, the one Xaiel had given them at the very start. Even though it had only been a few weeks, the parchment somehow managed to look more wrinkled and battered than before, as though it too had been under more stress than usual. Elkeri peered down at the map, pointing at a spot near the very top. “Looks like this is the city we want, to the north. It’s called Shamais, apparently. The palace is right at the very back of it.”

Shamais. The name sent a tingle down her feathers. While her mother had never talked much about other cities, this was a name she recognized. The favorite place to live for nobles and other higher-up gryphons. Salaki had sometimes uttered the name in a wistful manner, like she dreamed of being whisked away there someday.

Of course, she had gotten her wish when she went off with the Empress. She likely lived either in Shamais among the other nobles, or directly in the palace itself now.

What if I see her again? I couldn’t let her see me. Her heart ached at the thought, but she knew it was true. Her mother thought she was dead, and they couldn’t give Apael any idea they were stalking him. Approaching Salaki was not an option, as much as it may hurt to admit that to herself.

Maybe someday in the future, I can be with her again. But as she spread her wings to take to the sky with Elkeri, she didn’t quite believe that anymore. The future seemed hazy, filled with serrated claws and uncertainty.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 15

Twin Feathers: Chapter 13

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

She was first aware of voices talking around her, sliding in and out of her awareness. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, and some part of her longed to ignore them and sink back into deep sleep. She had the nagging feeling that something important had happened, though, and that someone was worried about her, but she couldn’t remember why.

Am I back home? With mom? Maybe one of those voices was Salaki chatting with Xaiel, the two of them waiting for her to wake up so they could decide on what to eat for breakfast. That would make sense. Xaiel had chosen last time, so it was her turn next.

But then why did she feel so worried? And now that she listened a bit closer, none of them sounded like Salaki or Xaiel. They all seemed foreign, other than one…Elkeri?

Her hazy brain continued to fumble over itself, trying to place where she was. She struggled to open her eyes, heavy eyelids refusing to budge. Her whole body felt frozen in place, still curled in the throes of sleep. With an inward grunt, she kept trying to move until, finally, she managed to shift on to her other side. A burning blade stabbed through her chest right as she moved, making her screech in pain.

“Kusarel! Don’t move, you’ll hurt yourself.” A claw pressed her down, avoiding the area that felt like it was on fire. Kusarel took in a few deep breaths, trying to get the pain under control. She wanted to paw at the wound to make it calm down, but she knew that was a horrible idea. It would only make it worse.

A few more moments passed and she felt her body relax just a bit, enough for her to return to the present. She blinked her eyes open and raised her head, looking at the room she was in. Three gryphons perched around her, staring with similarly concerned expressions. One was Elkeri, another appeared to be a familiar soldier, and the third she didn’t recognize.

“I’m glad you’re up. You’ve been out for four days,” the unfamiliar gryphon said with a soothing purr. Kusarel could hear hints of fear under that calm tone, though.

But why would she be afraid? And why am I injured?

Suddenly her memories snapped back into place. Of course this gryphon would be scared of her–she looked just like Apael, who had taken a chunk right out of her chest and face.

“I told you, it’s alright,” the familiar soldier said to the other gryphon, probably in regard to her fear. “She fought Apael. She’s on our side.”

“I suppose that’s true. But don’t give any information.”

“Information about what?” Kusarel asked, trying to sit up. She felt so undignified, spread on the hay bedding beneath her in a sprawl. Shaking her head, Elkeri pressed her claw down on Kusarel’s torso, gently forcing her back down.

“You have to stay still. The healer is still fixing you up.”

The gryphon who had sounded afraid gave a quick nod, glittering eyes staring out from beneath cloth that completely covered her head and beak.

“Yes, you still need a few more days of recovery. At least. I’d prefer a whole additional week, if I have it my way.”

Kusarel started to bow, then remembered that wouldn’t work too well with her lying on her side. “Thank you very much for healing me. Um, what’s your name?”

The healer pointed a talon at her covering and said, “Sorry dear, but I’m not giving away my identity. Hence the mask.”

She cocked her head to the side, wondering if she had insulted the healer in some way. “But why? Did I do something wrong?”

“She’s part of the resistance, Kusarel,” Elkeri broke in. “She’s playing it safe.”

“Oh.” She couldn’t think of anything more to say, though she knew she sounded like an idiot. A real member of the resistance! I can’t believe it. But isn’t this dangerous?

As though reading her expression, the soldier piped up, “Most of the soldiers have left Rivel by this point. They’ve been called back to the city around the palace, so it’s safe for us to heal you here, as long as we stay hidden and quiet.”

“But aren’t you a soldier?” Kusarel squinted her eyes and slapped her tail on the bedding, the only part of her body she could move without Elkeri scolding her. “And who are you, anyway?”

He whipped his head back and forth before replying, scanning the tiny little room they were all housed in. All the curtains were drawn, and the world sounded quiet outside, only the faint hiss of the wind coming through.

“Should still be safe enough to talk,” he muttered, more to himself than anything from the sounds of it. “Anyway, the name is Nanulo. Or that’s what you can call me, at least. You saved the cub and I from your twin, remember?”

The harried-looking soldier clicked in her mind: It was him who had stood between Apael and the cub. “Oh, is he ok? What happened?”

“He’s safe, don’t worry. I’ll be bringing him over to—”

“Nanulo, quiet! I just said don’t give any information,” the healer scowled, whacking him on the head with a bandage.

“I don’t think that’s sanitary,” Elkeri said, looking down her beak at the healer.

“Oh hush, you. Do you want me to fix up your friend or not?”

Elkeri couldn’t say anything to that, so she just flicked an ear and glowered, managing to seem far too large for the cramped room. The healer didn’t seem to notice, however, and she turned away to fiddle with a bunch of medical supplies on a low table to the side.

“My healer friend is right,” Nanulo said, inclining his head. “I wish I could say more, since we owe you our lives. But I’ll bring the cub to a safe, resistance-friendly city. He doesn’t have any more family left here after Apael had his way with them, after all.”

“I don’t understand. If you’re a soldier, why are you working with the resistance?” She glanced back at the healer, who had her head turned away from her. Kusarel thought she saw her ears prick up, but she continued to busy her claws as she hustled over the table, ignoring the other gryphons.

“I am a soldier. Or…well, I guess I was a soldier,” he added with a tired wheeze. “I used to serve the Empress loyally, but things happened.”

Kusarel waited for him to continue, but he didn’t say anything else. She knew it was impolite to pry, but curiosity managed to win over anyway.

“What happened?”

He muttered in a low voice, “I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say plenty of us soldiers have lost family to the Empress’ hierarchy, too. And some of us are dead sick of it.” His face grew dark and haunted, as though he had been flung far back to a distant, regretted time.

Elkeri shot Kusarel a look, but it wasn’t necessary: She knew better than to push him more at this point. Already, she felt guilty enough for asking at all.

“Well, I think that’s quite enough of that. The patient needs to rest, because if she doesn’t, I’ll be the one with more work,” the healer huffed. “And I want to take a much-needed vacation after this, thank you.”

“Aren’t there a bunch of other gryphons who need to be healed here?” Elkeri pointed out. “How can you go on vacation?”

“Hush!” the healer hissed as she slapped Elkeri across the beak with a bandage. “No more out of you and your sassy beak.”

A chortling little laugh escaped from Kusarel before she could stop it. Elkeri glared at her with her ears flattened at first, before she relaxed and gave a quick chirp.

“It’s good to hear you laugh. I got so worried, when Apael attacked you like that.” Her gaze fell to Kusarel’s chest, covered in gauze and tightly-wrapped tape. “At least your face isn’t too bad, though. He really only grazed you there.”

That was a graze? Kusarel thought with a start. I guess his claws are serrated, after all. It probably could have been worse.

“So, before the healer makes us shut up again,” Elkeri said with a sharp, pointed glare at the covered gryphon, “what do you want to do? After you’ve recovered, I mean. Where should we go?”

That question froze her mind. It hadn’t even occurred to her that they had no plan now. Rivel had been the last destination on their list, and now, they had no real leads or ideas of where to go. What do we even want to do? Should we hide away forever? But what about Xaiel…what happened to him? She saw Apael in her mind’s eye, with those strange serrated weapons, but the exact same scar as her brother. What was going on? Was that some twisted form of Xaiel after all, or was her brother somewhere else, doing who knows what?

She didn’t know, and she knew deep down she could never live not knowing the answers. Never mind the fact she could never live without Xaiel, one of her best friends and closest family. Which left only one choice, even though she wanted absolutely nothing to do with it and Elkeri probably wouldn’t be too pleased.

“We’re going wherever Apael went.”

No one said anything for a few seconds. Kusarel felt her body grow hot with anxiety and embarrassment, unsure what the others were thinking.

“Elkeri?”

“Just a second, Kusarel. Have to do something first.” She turned to the healer and stated, with an outstretched claw, “Bandage.”

The healer passed her the wrapping, and without another word, Elkeri spun around and whacked Kusarel upside the head with it like a whip.

“Hey! What was that for?” she yelped, wincing and trying to cover her head with a few talons. At least Elkeri had possessed the decency to avoid the wounded part of her face, but she had been awfully close.

“No attacking the patient!” the healer said, ripping the “weapon” out of her friend’s grip.

“Oh, you know what it’s for. You want to follow the gryphon who almost murdered you.” A nervous expression crossed Elkeri’s face, and she turned to the healer, whispering, “Do you think her brain got injured during the fight?”

“I can hear you, you know,” Kusarel said with an indignant fluff. “My brain is just fine.”

“Then why do you want to follow him, Kusarel? That’s crazy talk and you know it.”

With a sigh, she leaned her head down on her outstretched legs, looking for all the world like a resting cat. “I know. But what about my brother, Elkeri? Something’s going on. If we follow Apael, we may find out what happened to Xaiel.”

“Sure, sure. Or we could all die a horrible death by a psycho gryphon. Sounds like a good plan.”

The absurdity of the situation got to her, and Kusarel couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. “Since when are you the one trying to talk me out of something stupid? This feels backward.”

“And that’s why I’m worried about your head,” she retorted. “Though to be fair, he is your family. I guess that does make sense. Just a bit.”

“Alright, this has gone on long enough.” The healer appeared between them, shoving Elkeri away as she wrapped her talons under Kusarel’s chest wrappings. “I’m changing the patient’s gauze, and then she’s going to sleep. No more of this nonsense until she’s fully recovered.”

“Fine by me. That’ll give Kusarel more time to realize she really, really doesn’t want to go up against Apael again.”

Kusarel didn’t argue, but somehow she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Her brother was out there somewhere, either as Apael or not. One way or another, she was going to find him or bring him back to his senses…even if it killed her.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 14

Twin Feathers: Chapter 12

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

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?

It clicked.

“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”

Read Chapter 13

Twin Feathers: Chapter 11

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

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–“

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”

Read Chapter 12

Twin Feathers: Chapter 10

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

It took only a week in Tremora for Kusarel to learn a painful lesson: No matter where they went, they would always be second-class gryphons at best.

The inn that finally accepted them was a run-down old shack, with thin walls and no doors to shield them from eyesight–anyone could walk down the hall and see all the gryphons sleeping there, the walls between them only giving the illusion of privacy. Between the two of them, they hardly had enough space in their “room” to turn around, eerily similar to Elkeri’s den back at home. Still, as cramped and uncomfortable as they were, it was still far better than going out in the city.

Just about everywhere they went, the other gryphons either ignored them like they were invisible or shot them disgusted glares. More than a few stared at Kusarel openly, their eyes gawking at her lack of power feathers. It was clear they were wondering if she was an adult blank, and the thought made her want to curl up and hide herself from view, far from their judging looks. Even Elkeri, with all her inner fire, couldn’t stand up to them anymore; after more than a few screaming matches with merchants who refused to sell them even the most basic of goods, they had resorted to staying in the slums, only purchasing the muck that was allowed for the lowest of gryphons, some water, and a scratchy patch of hay to throw in their inn room.

Kusarel flexed her legs and rammed straight into Elkeri’s stomach, making her friend hiss and glare at her. Her feathers drooped with crud from a week of not washing, unable to find a bathhouse or local river they were allowed to use. Kusarel herself didn’t look much better, and the build-up of dirt around her talons drove her nearly mad; no matter how she scrubbed at the grime, it refused to come off without water, and neither of them were willing to waste the little drinking water they had on bathing.

“I swear Kusarel, if you kick me one more time, I’m pushing you out of here,” Elkeri growled, flicking her ears back.

She muttered a quick apology and tucked her legs underneath her, squishing herself into a tight little ball. The agitation from being in a foreign place made her want to pace back and forth or fidget, yet she had no choice but to sit with as little motion as possible.

Still, it was getting close to Xaiel’s arrival…today was the day he should be arriving. She couldn’t wait to wrap her wings around him, maybe poke him with a talon in good fun like they did in the old days. Any hint of normalcy sounded amazing to her right now.

“Elkeri, do you think we can head down to the gate? Xaiel should be here soon.”

“Is that today?” Elkeri’s ears perked up and she leapt to her feet, making Kusarel squawk as she pushed herself against the wall to make room. “Dear Godslayer, let’s get out of here!”

Elkeri nearly pranced down the hall as she ran out of the inn, the other visitors casting her disgruntled glances at her obvious enthusiasm. Kusarel followed behind at a slower pace, doing her best to keep her head down–if she lowered it enough, other gryphons may not notice her lack of power feathers. And the less attention I get, the better. I don’t need anyone questioning me. Let’s just get out of her quietly.

“Come on, Kusarel! We’re gonna get OUT of this dump!” Elkeri called with an excited trill, gathering the attention of the gryphons on the path outside as they stared at the two of them.

Or Elkeri can just shout at the top of her lungs for everyone to hear. That works too, she thought wryly, but her exhaustion kept her from berating Elkeri. She didn’t have the energy for an argument.

The two of them arrived back at the main gate half an hour later, Elkeri humming to herself the whole way. They stopped right at the entrance, and the same two guards from before waved at them.

“Oh, the farmer and the cub! Ready to head out?” one of the guards asked, the same one who had chewed out Elkeri for being on vacation. The other guard just gave them a mild look, clearly relaxed and not too interested in their presence.

“No, we’re waiting for someone. Her brother.” Elkeri jerked a claw toward Kusarel, who stepped back and murmured something unintelligible. “His name’s Xaiel. Have you seen him?”

Both guards shook their heads. “Nope, no one with that name has come through. What’s he look like?”

“Just like Kusarel here.”

He clucked and gave an apologetic shrug. “Nah, haven’t seen him. Feel free to camp here for the day, though. It’s the only way in, so you’ll see him right away when he arrives.”

Elkeri inclined her head and Kusarel gave a quick, quiet thanks. The two of them sat down on their haunches and waited, happy to have the fresh breeze ruffle through their feathers. The sun beat down on Kusarel’s back, and she unfolded her wings to let them soak in all the warm rays. After a week of being cooped up, she felt pure bliss wash over her as she reclined outside, free at last. And with the guards right next to them, none of the other townsfolk dared give them trouble.

This is heaven. I could sit here for hours.

And she did—straight through the evening and well into nightfall. The sun had long disappeared, replaced by the glimmering half moon. The wind now had a cold bite to it, making Kusarel shiver and nuzzle closer to Elkeri. The main guard gave them a sympathetic look and gestured toward the path, barely stifling a yawn.

“I don’t think your brother’s coming, young’un. Head back to the inn and try again tomorrow, ok?”

Elkeri got up and nodded, stretching like a cat with her claws forward and tail in the air. Distraught, Kusarel followed after her as they returned to the inn, nervous thoughts chattering in her mind.

“Why didn’t he show up?” she asked, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice. “Do you think he got hurt?”

Her friend just gave a huge yawn as she fluffed her wings. “He’s probably fine. It’s normal to get stalled for a day or two.”

The next day came and went, with still no sign of Xaiel. And the next, and the next. Every day they sat by the gate with the guards, who gave them sympathetic looks as more time passed.

“You sure he was going to meet you at Tremora?”

“We’re sure,” Elkeri said, though Kusarel could hear the tight worry rippling beneath her words.

“Well, just to be sure, I’ll send out messages to the guards at nearby cities. See if any of them have seen him.”

Kusarel chirped in appreciation, and even Elkeri curled her tail in a sign of approval. As patronizing as he may have been at the beginning, the guard did seem to care at least somewhat, which made her feel just a bit better about staying in such a strange place.

A few more days passed until it had been a full week and a half since they first started waiting for Xaiel. They trudged back down to the gate once again, the sun just barely peeking over the horizon, dotted with those unusual thin trees. The guard with the notepad perked up and waved to them, running over.

“You two, we heard back from the other guards.”

“And?” Elkeri demanded, not even bothering to sound polite. Her eyes had a shuttered look to them, and her tail dragged on the ground. Kusarel could tell she was still half asleep, just barely pulling herself along at this early hour.

“Good news–one of them spotted a gryphon who looks just like you, cub,” the guard said, pointing a claw at Kusarel. She felt her heart surge up, filled with renewed hope she hadn’t felt for well over a couple weeks.

“Oh, thank you so much! Where is he…sir?” Kusarel just barely remember to tack on the “sir” at the end, so overcome with excitement. They found him! He’s ok! I can’t wait to see him again.

“Well…” he coughed and looked away, rifling the papers in his notepad. “See, that’s the bad news. Your brother’s apparently in Rivel.”

Both Elkeri and Kusarel whipped their heads to stare at each other, remembering the warning Xaiel had given: Stay out of Rivel.

“But…isn’t that city violent right now?” Kusarel asked.

“Exactly. Sounds like it’s gotten much worse, too. The guard was pretty terrified, said there’s a lot of fighting and it’s not safe. He was vague though, that’s for sure.”

Elkeri let out a deep sigh, a sound that seemed to well up from a canyon inside her. “Well, that’s just lovely. I guess Xaiel is a soldier. He’s probably fighting there with the others.”

Kusarel’s mind churned, trying to figure out what to do. On one claw, she wanted to meet up with her brother now. The more time that passed without them being reunited, the more anxious she felt. On the other claw, he made it clear to stay far away from Rivel. Was it worth going there?

“Elkeri, what should we do?” she managed to voice, looking at her friend for guidance. Surely she would take the lead, make it clear what should be done.

Instead, Elkeri only drooped her wings as she leaned back on her hindlegs, scratching at her bleary eyes. “I don’t know, Kusarel. He’s your brother. What do YOU want to do?”

Me? The thought made her brain freeze. I have to choose?

She peered at Elkeri with wide, pleading eyes, but Elkeri only returned her gaze in silence. It was all up to her.

“We could keep waiting here,” Kusarel stammered, squinting at Elkeri to see if this was the right thing to say.

“If you want,” she replied in a dejected voice. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m not sure when he’ll be getting here. But if you want to hold out, we can.”

Kusarel glanced at the guard, who only shrugged and looked back at his notepad. She clicked her beak in agitation, walking in tight circles as she paced at the gate.

What do I want to do?

She thought back to the sorrow on her mother’s face and her brother’s insistence that they would make everything work out. Already, she missed seeing her family, even with all the drama and tension. Xaiel especially had always made her feel at ease, at home even when everything else was uncertain.

She just wanted to feel at home again.

And what if he was hurt? He’s probably fighting right now. If he gets injured, will he be ok? If he’s in danger, I have to help him.

She may not have any powers, but she couldn’t just leave her brother to fend for himself. He hadn’t even sent them a messenger warning them of his delay; something was clearly wrong.

Feeling her blood quicken, she stopped her pacing and said, “Elkeri, let’s go to Rivel.”

Elkeri blinked at her, her claw still on her face. “Say what now?”

“To Rivel. I want to see Xaiel now.”

“You want to go to the city of death and destruction?” Elkeri said in a flat voice, slapping her tail a few times for effect.

“Oh, um, I guess you’re right,” she said, backing away a bit and inclining her head. “Sorry.”

With a grunt, Elkeri rose to her feet and trod over to her, cuffing her on the shoulder. “Don’t apologize. If you want to go, we’ll go. I just wasn’t expecting it, you know?”

Trust me, I feel the same way. Every inch of her screamed to stay in Tremora, far away from whatever danger lurked in Rivel. It was safe here, even if it was uncomfortable and the citizens wanted them doing nothing but working the fields. They weren’t at any real risk if they kept their wings tucked in and tails between their legs.

But the thought of Xaiel out there, fighting without friends or family in a strange city, made her heart ache, stronger than her fear. She did her best to drown out the wailing voice in her head, begging her to stay put and keep waiting for a day that may never come.

“Alright. Let’s go, Elkeri.”

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 11

Twin Feathers: Chapter 9

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

Kusarel had never seen a town other than her own all her life, so she didn’t have much in the way of comparison. But even from this distance, she couldn’t help but suck in a deep breath as her eyes landed on the silhouette of Tremora. The city easily looked to be around four times bigger than her own, with a looming wall encasing all sides. Towers rose up from the walls, probably for lookouts or shooting down enemies in the case of war.

“It looks so…different from home.” Just uttering the word “different” made her stomach shift with tension. She and Elkeri had only been traveling by air for a couple days, and already she missed home. Craning her head down, even the trees covering the landscape looked unusual; these were much thinner, with sparser leaves.

“Yeah, it looks intense. Xaiel said it was peaceful, though,” Elkeri said, squinting at Tremora. “Maybe this is normal and our town is the weird one.”

That thought didn’t quite sit well with Kusarel; the idea of living in cities that were nothing like her own, even temporarily, filled her with unease.

I wish I could just turn around and fly home now. But my family wouldn’t even be there anymore…they’re probably off to the palace right now. I wonder what mother is thinking. Does she miss me?

Her mother’s tear-soaked feathers came back to her, and she felt her wings somehow grow even heavier. She had never flown this much before, and she could feel every muscle in her wings screaming at her. Still, this heaviness somehow felt deeper and more insidious.

“Elkeri, do you think there’s any chance I could live with my family in the palace?” Her mind went back to what Xaiel had said, about possibility talking with the Empress and getting her pardoned.

Her small bubble of hope instantly popped as Elkeri cackled from her side. “Kusarel, you’re gonna make me laugh so hard I’ll fall out of the sky.”

Her eyes blurred over somewhat as a small amount of tears squeezed out, before she could stop them. Embarrassed, she turned her head slightly away from Elkeri, not wanting her friend to see her like this.

“Aw, are you crying? I’m sorry, Kusarel. I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

How did she notice that? I know gryphons have sharp eyes, but come on. She just mumbled something in response, so low even she couldn’t hear what she was saying. Elkeri tilted her wings and flew a bit closer, nudging her on the side without saying another word.

An hour of blissful silence later and they arrived at the city. The two gryphons landed outside the wall, a ways back from the main gate. Two guards already had their gaze fixed on them, waiting for their approach.

“I wish we could just fly into the city.”

Elkeri nodded with a grumble. “Completely agree, but I’m pretty sure they’d swarm us and take us down.” Flicking her tail in the direction of the gate, she said, “Let’s get this over with already. I want to go in, take a nap, and eat some real food already.”

Kusarel ducked her head and followed her friend, keeping a few steps behind her. Somehow, having Elkeri take the lead made her feel a lot safer, like she was shielded from harm.

“Welcome, visitors. Just a couple questions and you’ll be good to go,” one of the guards called, stepping forward toward them. Both guards wore silver plates of armor over their torso and chest and carried a spear wrapped in their tails, yet their ears were held in a relaxed state. Kusarel remembered what Xaiel had said about Tremora being peaceful and hoped this was a good sign.

“First, where are you from?” the first guard asked. The other guard pulled out a pad of paper and looked at them expectantly.

“Kryga,” Elkeri answered in a clear, crisp voice. Kusarel shifted at the sound of coldness underneath the surface, exposing her friend’s seemingly innate distrust of authorities. Still, the guards didn’t seem to notice, or perhaps they were just used to it; they both nodded, and the one with the notepad jotted something down.

“Makes sense. Kryga’s so close to us. You ever been out of town before?”

“No. This is the first time.”

The guard chuckled and waved toward the walls. “Bet this comes as quite a shock then, eh?” Kryga’s nothing like Tremora.”

Trust me, I noticed, Kusarel thought, wishing she could get out of the center of attention and take a nice, warm bath already.

“Last question: What’s your business here? Since you’re a farmer, I’m guessing you’re here for trade or work. And you…” He peered around Elkeri and looked straight at Kusarel, making her quiver. His eyes, so warm and friendly just a moment ago, seemed to lose some of their luster, replaced by suspicion. “Where are your power feathers? You’re not an adult blank, are you?”

The other guard snapped to attention, ripping his eyes off of his notepad to zero in on Kusarel. She tried to respond, but only a quiet squeak came out at first. Clearing her throat, she tried again, her voice wavering and small.

“I’m…I’m just 28. Elkeri is my guardian.”

She sounded pathetic even to herself, but immediately the intensity vanished. The warmth returned to the first guard’s eyes as the other one began writing again.

“Oh, still a cub! Almost an adult though. Guess you still have two more years to get your powers.”

“Yes sir,” she said quietly, filled with gratitude that they seemed to fall for the lie right away.

“Right, now, back to your business here,” he stated, turning his attention back toward Elkeri.

“Tourism,” Elkeri replied in a clipped voice. The two guards gave them a funny look once again, but the first one shrugged and gestured for the other one to write it down.

“We don’t get a lot of tourist farmers, but all right. You can enter, but don’t be surprised if the other gryphons don’t want much to do with you. Your kind is supposed to be working, after all.” The guard’s voice was still friendly, but there was a hint of sternness underneath, like a parent berating a cub for frolicking about.

Kusarel saw Elkeri’s wings raise ever so slightly in an ominous fashion. Thankfully, she stopped herself from spreading them more in what would have clearly been a battle stance. Instead, she gave a short nod and walked toward the gate as they lifted it open, waving the two of them through and into the city.

When they were out of earshot of the guards, Elkeri hissed, “Are you pulling my feathers? ‘Your kind is supposed to be working.’ How rude can you get! Right, Kusarel?”

She didn’t answer, but instead stared with wide eyes at all the sights around her. The stone path beneath them spanned at least twice the width of the ones back at home, if not more. Instead of a few dens peppering the sides of the path here and there, like back in her town, Tremora was filled with buildings and vendors taking up nearly every usable inch. Merchants squawked at her from their stalls, filled with goods Kusarel had never seen before: Jewelry embedded with so much gold and gems it would weigh down even the strongest flier. Whole fish stabbed through a stick, coated with a sticky sauce and appetizing seeds. Blankets colored like the rainbow with a thick, plush weave, so soft looking that she wanted to nestle against them right now.

My necklace probably came from a place like this, she realized. Her mother had mentioned she had bought the necklace from a traveling merchant. Did that merchant spend a lot of her time in stalls just like this, going from city to city? The thought of so much constant travel and loud, piercing noise like this made her shudder. She could never live a life like that.

“Kusarel, look at that!” Elkeri jabbed a claw at a huge hunk of meat, rotating on a skewer underneath one of the pavilions. The juices ran down the sides and dripped underneath, making her stomach grumble just at the sight of it. “Let’s go get some.”

Elkeri lowered her head and plowed her way through the crowd milling about the path, using her horns to push other gryphons aside and clear a way through. The others grumbled at them, and Kusarel could only avert her eyes and mutter quick apologies as she darted after her. Of course Elkeri would ram her way straight through everyone, instead of weaving in and out or going around like she would have done.

“I’ll take three servings of that amazing chunk of meat there,” Elkeri chirped to the vendor, pulled out her bag of coins. “And my friend–I mean, my cub here–wants some too. How much do you want, Kusarel?”

“Um, one serving is fine,” she mumbled, avoiding eye contact with the vendor gryphon. There was something about him she didn’t like, something a bit combative and on edge.

“Make that three for her, too,” Elkeri corrected. “Ok, so how much will that be?”

“Nothing. Get out of my stall now, farmer,” the shop owner barked.

Kusarel felt the air grow very, very still. The other gryphons around them stopped and turned their attention to the three gryphons. Some of them gave patronizing little laughs, nudging each other and pointing at Elkeri’s green power feathers.

“I didn’t realize you served farmers now, Galo. Downgrading your shop a bit now?” one of the gryphons asked the shop owner.

Galo fluffed his feathers and stood to his full height, never taking his eyes off Elkeri. “Absolutely not. I don’t know what this gryphon is doing here. Go work the fields like the others!” he snapped, the point of his beak flashing in the sunlight.

Kusarel felt shaking beside her–Elkeri, trembling from wing to claw with pure rage. As much as she wanted to distance herself, she inched just a bit closer and brushed her side, praying she could calm her down.

“I’m from Kryga, you sack of molted feathers! I’m not going to work your city’s fields while I’m on vacation,” Elkeri snarled, spreading her legs wide and flexing her talons against the stone below. A few gryphons behind her yelped in surprise as her tail whipped against them furiously, slashing through the air.

“Vacation?” another onlooker said with amusement. “Oh dear! I knew Kryga was a backwater little town, but this is just too much. To think they’re so out of touch that they let their farmers go on pleasure trips.”

“Just ridiculous,” another gryphon murmured in agreement. “Hope this doesn’t become more common. I don’t want to see dirty farmers milling about here.”

With a roar, Elkeri reared up on her hindlegs and screeched, “Dirty farmers? I’m cleaner than YOU! You look like maggots ate all your feathers.”

“Excuse me? I’m having a bad molt, farmer, not that I have to answer to you,” the gryphon spat back, stamping a claw against the ground. “By the Godslayer, Kryga really must be a dump if they let farmers talk back like this!”

“I’m so sorry! She’s just in a bad mood after traveling. Please forgive her,” Kusarel said, bowing as she grabbed Elkeri by the foreleg. “We’ll leave now, promise.”

“You’d better or I’m getting the guards,” Galo growled. She nodded fervently and pulled Elkeri away, though it took more effort than usual–her talons were arched into the ground, making a horrible scraping sound as Kusarel heaved her through the crowd of onlookers and farther down the path. A few of the gryphons clucked their tongues at them in disapproval, but they let them through, probably happy to see the farmer forced to leave.

When they were finally at a good distance, Kusarel stopped and released her grip, shaking out her stiff claw. “Elkeri, we can’t afford to make enemies here. We need to lay low until Xaiel arrives, ok?”

Elkeri only glared at her with slit pupils, still shaking with her beak opened wide, like she was ready to tear into skin and feathers. “I just wanted some dinner. Is that too much, Kusarel?”

“No, it’s not,” Kusarel said in a tired voice, wings drooping against her side. She was suddenly all-too aware of how difficult it was to keep them folded properly, as though her muscles were too tired for even that little amount of work. Every part of her just wanted to sleep and be done with this day.

The exhaustion in her tone must have gotten through her friend’s skull. Elkeri still shook and snapped her beak at the air, but she turned away and began walking down the path. “Sorry, I know you’re tired. Let’s find an inn and turn in for the night. I’m sure there has to be one that accepts farmers.”

Kusarel didn’t say anything, but once again plodded behind her friend. Somehow, she felt even less enthusiastic about staying in Tremora than before.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 10

One-week hiatus

Hi everyone! “Twin Feathers” will be on hiatus next week, so I can take time to work on freelance writing. I’ll be back with chapter 9 on July 31st. In the future, I’ll take a one-week hiatus every month or two so I can juggle my novel with freelance work. Of course, I’ll always post a warning one week ahead of time, like I’m doing now.

Thank you all for reading! See you at the end of July.

Twin Feathers: Chapter 8

See all “Twin Feathers” chapters here. Prefer Wattpad? Read here!

Several heartbeats after Salaki had slithered out of the den, Elkeri jumped in through the open window and positioned herself between the two siblings. Now, she stood in front of Kusarel, her whole body shaking with a burning rage that left Kusarel feeling like she was standing in the middle of a flame.

“Stop jabbing those horns at me, Elkeri!”

“I’m not gonna let you hurt her, you filthy crow! I thought you were on our side.” She guarded Kusarel with a wide stance, head ducked and horns flaring ominously close to Xaiel’s face. Giving a sharp screech, she beat her wings and stirred up the air around them.

“Ok, first of all, crows are noble birds and not at all filthy. And second, I am on your side, thank you very much. We’re going to get Kusarel out of here.”

Elkeri cocked her head to the side, though she still kept those horns pointed squarely at Xaiel. “Really now? Because you just said you’d do the culling.”

With a sigh, he sat back on his haunches and raised a claw in surrender. “It was for show, Elkeri. I’m not going to hurt my sister. The fact I even have to say that is kind of insulting, you know?”

She looked back and forth between Xaiel and Kusarel, whipping her tail in agitation. At Kusarel’s gentle nod, she relaxed her stance and folded her wings. “Alright, alright, I’m sorry. Guess I got kinda heated up. Though I swear, if you make ANY sort of move, my horns are going right through that pretty face of yours.”

Xaiel clucked his tongue and threw his head back in a stylish pose. “I do have a good-looking face, don’t I? Thanks for noticing.”

Her friend grumbled something under her breath, probably an insult, but Kusarel could see the tension fading away. Her muscles no longer looked coiled and taut, ready to spring, and her tail had settled against the floor with no more fidgeting. “Stop complimenting yourself. What’s the plan?”

The sassy gleam vanished from Xaiel’s eyes as he nodded at Kusarel, all business now. “Kusarel, you’re going to head over to Tremora.” He pulled a map out of the bag at his side and spread it on the ground, circling a nearby city with a quill. “It’s very close, and it’s a peaceful city too, so you shouldn’t have much trouble getting in. The guards there are lax; I talk with them a lot, so I’d know.”

Elkeri leaned over and jabbed at another spot on the map, closer to their town. “Why not here? This one is closer, so let’s do that one instead.”

“No way! You two stay clear of Rivel.” He drew a giant X over the area and scowled at Elkeri. “That city is a hotspot right now. Tons of rebellion and fighting. I know you’re not a guard, but there’s no way you haven’t heard of that yet.”

She shrugged and preened the feathers on her foreleg, a little too violently. “Oh my, I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to keep up with all the news, what with me throwing my back out every single day from dawn to night.”

With an abashed look, he clucked his tongue in apology. “Right, sorry. Guess that makes sense. So anyway, Kusarel, you’ll head here-“

“With me,” Elkeri interrupted, nudging Kusarel on the side.

“Perfect. You two will head to Tremora now and wait there until the next half moon. I’ll meet you there then. If I can’t be there, I’ll send a messenger letting you know what’s going on. Either way, you’ll hear from me.”

Kusarel finally got her voice back in working order, still rattled from the close encounter with her mother. Her mind kept going back to those sad eyes, but she did her best to keep focused on the current situation. After all, it was the only way she’d get out alive. “But what’s going to happen then?”

“Well, we’ll see.” Xaiel rubbed his forehead, hissing as he accidentally dislodged some feathers with a crooked talon. “I have two different plans. The first one…and don’t you dare laugh at me, Elkeri…is that I’ll talk to the Empress and get you pardoned.”

She felt shaking—Kusarel turned to look at Elkeri with concern, still brushed up against her side. Her friend looked like she was in pain, trying to hold something back. A couple seconds later, she erupted in raucous laughter, slapping her claws against the flooring as her whole body shook.

“Oh, that’s gold. Great plan, Xaiel, great plan. Nothing is gonna go wrong there.”

“I told you not to laugh,” he grumbled. “And yes, I know it’s probably not going to happen. I’ll just keep an eye on how things are going, if the Empress values my opinion or not. I’ve heard some of her personal guards are more like advisors, so it could happen. And if she does, I’ll take the chance. Mother won’t be happy we lied to her, but if the Empress gives you a personal pardon, she won’t be able to complain.”

“Yeah, that’s cute. So what’s the real plan?” she said with a snicker.

“The ‘real plan’ is that we get you and Kusarel to a city closer to the palace. I’ll escort you there to make sure you’re safe; if we fly quickly, I can get you there and zip back to the palace without anyone being too suspicious. You’ll make a life there, and I can visit you two sometimes. Keeping it secret from our family, of course.”

Much better. That I can actually see working. What do you think, Kusarel?”

Kusarel tried to still the shivering anxiety in her stomach, the fear she could never make a life anywhere. I’m a blank. What city will want me? She brushed the area around her ears without realizing it, where power feathers would be if she had them.

Xaiel’s eyes went up to her claws, cupped on her forehead. He gave a sympathetic chirp and brushed against her. “Don’t worry, Kusarel. Since you’re a new adult, you still look like you could possibly be a cub. You’re in that weird in-between state. So just pretend you’re still young and Elkeri is your guardian.”

“But…how long can we do that for? I’ll look older eventually, and then what?”

“Well, we’re gonna hope you have your powers by then. And if not, we’ll figure it out when the time comes, ok? No one is going to abandon you here. Other than dear mother,” he said under his breath, so quietly Kusarel was fairly certain she wasn’t meant to have heard that last part.

Elkeri slapped her a few times with her tail, chortling, “Yeah, it’ll be fine. We’ve got this.”

Her brother rose to his feet and walked toward the window, sticking his head out for a moment. “Sorry to cut this short, but you two should get going. I can still hear all the racket in the plaza, but the last thing we want is anyone getting suspicious.”

“No problem. We’re off.” Elkeri started trotting toward the entrance, only for Xaiel to rush forward and block her path.

“Hold up! First, you two should take the map and some money.” He rolled up the map, dusting off the dirt from the ground, and passed it over to Elkeri. She tucked it into her bag, along with a roll of coins he threw her way. “Next, I hate to say this, but we need to make this look real. You know, blood and feathers on the ground.”

Kusarel pressed her ears flat against her head, feeling herself grow squeamish. “Is that necessary?”

Elkeri sighed, nodding toward Xaiel. “He’s right, actually. Your mother would be really suspicious if it doesn’t look like you were killed.” She took a step forward and gestured toward him. “You can go ahead and claw me. You’re a guard, so you’ll know how to avoid any real damage.”

“Eh, no promises.”

“Excuse me?!” Elkeri shrieked, though Kusarel couldn’t help but laugh.

“I’m just messing with you,” he chuckled. “I’ll just nick you on the side and spread the blood on the ground. I’ll mix it with some water for good measure, make it look like there’s more. I doubt mother will want to look that closely.”

She gave another nod, but Kusarel shook her head and said, “No, wait. I’ll take the hit, Elkeri.”

The horned gryphon blinked at her in confusion. “Why? You’ve been through a lot tonight. I’ll do it for you.”

She wanted to take her up on the offer, but the thought of doing so filled her with a deep guilt. Already, she felt guilty about deceiving her family like this; she didn’t need more feelings of shame in her life right now. “You already tried to fight Xaiel for me earlier. I’ll handle this now.”

With a quick incline of her head, Elkeri stepped aside and let Xaiel walk forward.

“Sorry, Kusarel. I’d do it to myself, but it’ll look like you fought back if I’m wounded. Guessing you don’t want that, right?”

Remembering her mother’s broken expression, Kusarel whipped her head back and forth so rapidly that the world started to spun. “Definitely not. I don’t want mother thinking less of me.”

She waved for him to go for it. There was a flash of talons and then the sensation of something warm dripping down her side, before a sharp pain set in. Xaiel checked the wound and nodded, his talons bloody and covered in a few of her torn feathers.

“Elkeri, you bandage her up. I’m going to make a mess here now.”

A couple minutes later and they were done. The bandages pressed into Kusarel’s torso in an uncomfortable restriction, but already the pain had decreased to a dull throb. I guess Xaiel does know what he’s doing. Thankfully.

Xaiel gave a few more stamps into the ground, pressing her ripped feathers into the blood marring their den. “There. That should be good enough.” Satisfied, he turned to Kusarel and gave her a quick embrace before stepping away. “I’ll see you soon, ok? Stay safe, you two.”

She felt her pulse quicken, filled with the looming uncertainty of leaving her home and family. What if things go wrong? What if I don’t see him again?

Elkeri grabbed her front claw and dragged her forward, out of the den and into the open air. “No time to get anxious, Kusarel. We’re off on an adventure!”

“I’d rather stay home,” she muttered, but of course there was no helping that. She had no future in this town. Willingly or not, it was time to flee.

© Nadine Anton “The Feathered Pagan”

Read Chapter 9