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Balmorrow

By Stephanie Wintermute All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 1

He had never been to this part of the Forest before. They had all told him growing up as he’d prepared for his Rites that he wasn’t to tread here, that it was cursed, sacred land that wasn’t for human trespassing.

The Elders and tribe members called it Balmorrow, some phonetic term that meant something ancient but he knew in his guts that he was supposed to be here, now. And nothing they’d drilled into his brain could drown out his adrenaline as he careened though the dense brush, thick with thorns and other brambles that would strike the blood from him if he let them.

Thoughts moral and immoral crashed though his head as he ran headlong through the trees after his prey. The slaying of a griffin was customary in his village of Gralship; it was a coming-of-age tradition that had existed for centuries. His father had called it the most eventful morning of his life. Not only because he’d inadvertently smashed through his wife-to-be’s garden the first time he’d ever laid eyes on her…but because, as he’d driven his sword between the shoulder blades and into the spine of his mark, he’d decided he would call his first-born child Griffin. And so he did.

Griffin thought back to the first time his father, Gray, had taken him to see that fateful beast that was his namesake. When a Griffin dies, its remains immediately solidify into stone, where they remain forever in their death throes. Gray’s sword had been lodged so deeply, that it still stood like a lighthouse atop a great stone face in the once living statue. That particular creature became a kind of shrine after his father had become the leader of the village. A responsibility that would one day befall him. But not this day.

The cuts upon his face as twigs and briers struck his pale cheeks stung Griffin, but he would not stop. It was his birthright to be here, and he wasn’t going to give in to such petty little pains. He could hear his target far ahead of him, but not far enough to drive him back or diminish his vigor. This is what he’d been waiting for his entire life, and dammit, he would be better than all of the others. His father’s words drummed in his head, still:

“No matter where the beast goes, you must follow, because if you bow to grace or if you bow to rule, there is no fitting leadership inside of you.”

That said it all to him. He had proper permission to be doing this deed, and no amount of moral grief would hold him back.

His breath was pumping so fully within his lungs, he couldn’t feel it circulating inside himself anymore. Griffin would chase this Thing until he had no more strength in his body. He would slay it or he himself would be slain. There would be no compromise. He had laid claim to the life of a griffin and it would be his mark laid bare. Up ahead, he heard no more branches breaking, no more limbs snapping, and it brought confusion for but a second. As the young man burst into a clearing seconds later, he understood suddenly, but then felt pain explode out upon him like a powder keg through his chest and his abdomen.

Everything was lopsided and then violently dark for time uncounted. Griffin saw bright red creatures swimming about inside his head for an indiscriminate amount of time, then felt as if he was suffocating…drowning.

“What do you want with me, young one?,” a voice growled to him, from the haze. Griffin gasped, awakening. He looked upward to where the strange voice was assailing him. He saw nothing but a statue. A rather large, derelict looking statue. Griffin sprung to his feet, startled. He felt a warm substance trickling down his face, and across his chin. He already knew it was his own blood, as he’d apparently struck this stone creature head on, at a full run, and knocked himself inanimate.

The force of the blow had blown most of the breath right out of his chest, and Griffin staggered, confused and possibly injured, he thought. But no injury would stop him. He drew his sword, and his hunting dagger. He’d named the pair Eurydice and Orpheus, for no reasons but that the names seemed to fit. Eurydice was the sword, and he held it at the ready, listening for sounds human and inhuman. He would not be taken by surprise.

Griffin’s adrenaline, that had not lessened but increased tenfold, made him feel almost godly. Sounds piqued his interest at pin drop levels, and everything was sharp. He finally brought himself to look fully around at his fresh destination.

He was surprised at what he saw; so surprised, in fact, that he could barely stand properly in battle stance. Griffin felt as if he’d been drawn into a world aside from his own. The statue that he’d careened into was completely encircled in climbing roses. They were white, and angelic, except where his own blood apparently stained them. The statue itself was that of a creature, large and awesome. It bore the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle. It was indeed a griffin so magnificent, Griffin had to take pause.

If he himself ever inspired such awe, he would be a fitting leader by all means. He looked around him. There were so many statues of griffins in so many poses and lunges and stances, that his head spun. This was the sacred land of Balmorrow. And his stomach lurched so that Griffin thought he would be sick. He chalked that up to being knocked unconscious not too long before, as any warrior would.

This world was gray and white and red, and Griffin was sure that they could all come to life at any second and murder him but knew in his heart that it was unlikely. Balmorrow was the ancient burial grounds of the griffins. How they appeared here no one had ever speculated nor discovered, but they did indeed appear here after death. Quite a few of these were kills of his tribe.

The griffin his father had killed, dubbed Manticore, had never been moved from where its final resting place was. It had never been questioned. No one knew why it remained where it was. Maybe that was why it had been made into a shrine. But this was another realm completely. Griffin thought about that statue in comparison to these, and realized that even though he was older by ten years, the size and the alarm of the creatures in any state had not lessened. They all seemed to look into his soul en masse, and he felt his courage shrink within his as if something was smothering its flame. He still stood his ground.

He had been ‘dubbed’ stubborn and wickedly blunt by his peers, but he was not a coward. If he would die, he’d die on his feet.

Then he noticed something odd; it was silent. So silent, he could hear his own breath above everything else. He wondered if it had been like that since he’d arrived, or if it had just become so. He gathered his courage and peered up into the eyes of the griffin he’d rammed into. There were no signs of the creature he’d been hunting. Griffin wondered if it had existed at all, or if it had just lured him here to break the rules of his tribe and abolish the act he’d been trying to commit.

Griffin felt his backbone chill inside the eyes of the enormous beast, and looked downward to the roses scattered across its pale, gray body. The bright red of Griffin’s blood seemed to be a wild scream to an utterly silent night as a contrast to the mute color. Then, an odd thing happened or, at least Griffin believed it to be happening, by means of a concussion or his own delusion.

He watched, eyes widening, as the stain of his blood waned, and absorbed into the white of the roses, until they were clean again, as the driven snow. This sight would have made any sane man run for his holy life, Griffin thought, but he remained, unwavering. He would not be stopped by this test. The whole of his tribe had taught him his entire life that griffins were ignorant, unfeeling beasts destined to be brought down as a right of passage, and thought of as no more than a trial of man or womanhood. They were living tests to be taken and done away with.

They were of no language nor intelligence. They simply existed to be hunted. Then the sound of stone being split at over a hundred miles an hour cracked against Griffin’s ears and he lumbered back, dumbstruck. His weapons were still at the ready, and he raised his eyes back to their original target. The sight could have rendered him dumb for days.

The stone of the rose laden griffin had begun to melt away, and very quickly revealed the flesh and blood stance of a bonafide, living creature. The griffin had come back to life. Griffin rapidly assessed the situation, and decided it could go back to being dead quite quickly if he pounced upon it without hesitation, so he prepared to do so.

Before he’d even put those spare thoughts into motion, the griffin was upon him, smashing him into the ground with such a breakneck speed, the world was spun on its end. Blood rose like the color of his cheeks inside of Griffin’s mouth, and he spat it into the air like the spray of white-water. The pressure against his chest was so great, he could barely breathe to do so, and he struggled mightily in his vile discomfort. He hadn’t even the strength to lift his arms or to bear his sword and his dagger.

The beast had surely won, and his remains would never be found. Even carrion avoided places such as these, and his body would be left to rot in the masking clouds of this godforsaken place. Griffin tried to scream in defiance at his last, but his chest was so constricted that he could make only a wheezing, fluid-drenched sound that had no resonance at all. And so he was pinned, unmoving and unmovable.

He waited for his final moment, with all of his courage. But the moment never came.

“How is it that any of my brethren were defeated by creatures such as you?,” the griffin thundered in a

voice just as human as Griffin’s. “I was able to take you down with but a thought and an action.”

Griffin’s shock must have been obvious, for the griffin looked down into his eyes with a clear disdain.

“WELL?”

Pressure was relieved from Griffin’s chest, and he took a deep breath in ,coughing raggedly.

“How is it you speak?,” Griffin stammered, unable to think of anything else to say.

“I speak as I always have,” the beast replied, impatiently. “How is it YOU speak?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Griffin heard himself quivering, but could not make himself be still.

“I mean you bipedal monstrosities usually grunt and gallop about as if you were swine. What makes you so

divine among your race?”

Griffin was utterly mystified. Could it be the earth upon which they stood? Was it so drenched with

sorcery that the senses were made absolutely foul with confusion?

“I am no more divine than any among my tribe, beast,” Griffin managed. “I must know how you have

found use of your vocal chords, for we are taught that your kind has no speech.”

“NO SPEECH?!!!”, the griffin seemed beyond his own anger, and Griffin prepared himself for the stretch

of its talons to tear into his heart.

“We have enough speech for any man if only they had ears to HEAR!!!”

“But, I have heard you!,” Griffin called out with pith in his plea.

“Give me audience, because I can understand you when no other I’ve heard of can do such a thing!”

The great griffin seemed to lessen significantly in size, and let up his grip on Griffin, then stood back.

“Put you weapons away, young one, and we will talk.”

Griffin did as he was asked, with no hesitation and no duplicity. He wanted to know what was happening to

him, and why. This creature could most definitely tell him what was at hand.

“How is it you’ve freed me from my stone coffin?”, the griffin asked.

“I…don’t know. I ran into you. I…the roses…I bled onto the roses…”

“Ah…I understand.”

“Could you tell me, please…because I don’t understand.”

“Blood of any creature can pulse life back into those who’ve been turned to stone…but alas…it is not

enough to fully sustain life.”

“What do you mean, griffin?”

The creature laughed…or at least, Griffin thought it was a laugh. It was a booming chortle of screeches and

thunder that could have been a million growls.

“I have not heard that name for our kind before. I don’t believe there are words for what we are actually

called in your tongue. I do not even believe we are speaking each others’ languages, but that we are being

allowed to understand each other to serve a purpose. Let me explain fully, while there is still time.”

The large beast stepped back farther, and sat upright, like a big cat, then stretched its wings outward, and

craned its neck. “Oh…I haven’t done that in so long…” The creature quickly composed itself, then folded

its wings at it’s back comfortably. Its mane, which started at the base of the head, was like molten, golden

waves that cascaded down into its shoulder blades.

“In my tribe, there has been a sickness…like a plague…for a decade. Or…maybe longer. I do not know

how long I have been here like this. My kind has been reverted to stone without provocation. By that, I

mean that usually, a…grif-fon can turn to stone of its own free will, and then back again. They are stone in

slumber, and they are stone in death. But this sickness is taking us before our time. We have ancient

magicks that transport our dead to this sacred ground, to be memorialized forever in stone, where no other

creatures can disturb us. It is forbidden to set foot upon this earth.”

Griffin’s stomach dropped, but he said nothing, as the obvious was just that.

“But I believe your presence here is different.” The creature shook his great head, and feathers from his

crest came free, floating on a nonexistent breeze.

“When your blood touched my form, I was set back into motion, but it won’t last…no, I don’t believe it

will last much longer at all. I will speak quickly and to the point. I believe you have been cursed.”

“What!!?” Griffin’s outburst startled even him. The griffin was unmoved.

“I do not know to what extent, but if you can understand me, then you have surely been affected by this

place. You must travel to my homeland. It is six days from here, but I know you can make it. You will find

the rest of your answers there. Take this.”

The griffin reached its huge neck around and plucked something from its shoulder blades, then it swung

back around to face Griffin. It placed a very large opal chain around his neck and nudged him with his

giant, ebony beak.

“This will keep them from killing you,” he said with no humor at all. Griffin gulped, and the beast

continued.

“What is your name, child?”

Griffin hesitated, rocking back and forth upon his heels.

“Griffin.” The booming laugh came again.

“Well…that fits just nicely. My name is Arventius. Use it, and they will believe you.”

Suddenly, an unnerving cracking noise was audible in the silent clearing.

“I do believe your curse is just as much a blessing,” Arventius said, a croak in his tone.

“Do not shed any more of your blood in this place, lest you be buried here with it.”

Griffin nodded his head, silently, aware of what was happening.

“Go.”

And with that, Arventius was riddled with stone features again, as if he had never moved, and Griffin

fell into a seated position, staring up into his now cold eyes with the most bitter feeling in him that he’d

ever experienced. All was silent again. ‘What do I do now?’, Griffin thought morosely to himself. He was

half tempted to cut himself open and bleed himself into some more answers but the wise creature’s words

stopped him. There would be no easy solution. Just one decision; whether or not to travel farther into the

cursed country. With only two days more of supplies, and two days back to his own village, the answer

wasn’t the one he wanted to give. But he would give it anyway.

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