“It’s so warm,” Kassandra exclaimed, holding her hands out to the Sunstone.
“It will burn you,” Thornfire warned. “Don’t touch it.”
The children, chilled on the mountain despite their layers of clothing, had gathered around the Stone, as close as they could get without singeing their eyebrows, as soon as Hawkwind had revealed it and placed it in the depression where they had the campfire.
“The other one doesn’t do anything,” Rikah complained.
“It does do something,” Thornfire corrected.
“Yeah, it does,” little Karo agreed, “you just can’t feel it.”
“Like you can,” Rikah retorted.
Karo didn’t argue back, but his wronged expression told Hawkwind that he clearly could feel it, and she thought back again on what Thornfire had said about the boy’s latent magical potential. She put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t mess about with it, Karo,” she cautioned softly.
“I’m not,” he protested. “I’m just trying to figure it out.”
“Hawkwind, Rainsoft,” Thornfire summoned. “Let’s eat and talk about tomorrow.”
“Starbright, thank you for the meal,” Hawkwind called as she turned to follow the mage.
“No problem,” the golden griffin grinned back. “I know I’ve got the easy job.”
Hawkwind caught Rainsoft gesturing his thanks as well, and saw Starbright reply the same way. Behind them, Rikah was starting to lay bits of meat on top of the now clean Sunstone to cook. Thornfire led the way to two still-warm prey bodies at the edge of the camp and the three griffins dug in, sharing out the best bits between them. Once the bones had been picked clean and gnawed for good measure, the trio sat together and preened the blood off of each other’s feathers. Although Hawkwind tried to be neat, ripping into a carcass was never the tidiest thing and having companions around to clean up with was always a big help.
“How are we going to find your brother now?” Hawkwind asked as soon as her bill was free of feathers.
“How will we free my family?” Rainsoft added by hands.
“We made the talis angry today,” Thornfire rumbled, “and they saw us, so they know exactly who took the Stones. It wasn’t what I’d hoped would happen. They’ll be on their guard now. It will be much harder to accomplish anything down there.”
“We shouldn’t leave should we?” Hawkwind asked timidly. “There is still hope?”
“The talis’ source of hot water will be drying up. They won’t need their captive griffins to sacrifice to keep the Stones running anymore. They might not have figured that out just yet, but it won’t take them long. You do realize what will happen when they make the connection.”
It felt like a cold weight dropped into Hawkwind’s belly. “They’ll start eating their prisoners.”
“I think so, too,” Thornfire sighed.
“No,” Rainsoft gestured emphatically. “We have to save them before that happens.”
“I agree. It’s hard to say how quickly they will start doing it, but there’s no doubt they will.”
“What do we do?” Hawkwind pled.
Thornfire’s claws contracted into the gravel with a sound like an icy hiss. “We go at the coldest, darkest hour before dawn and try to free the prisoners.”
Hawkwind and Rainsoft stared.
“You’re not serious. We’ll be caught and killed.”
“At the coldest hour the talis will congregate in the pools,” Thornfire explained. “In darkness we are less susceptible to being hypnotized because we won’t be able to see their scale patterns.”
“We won’t be able to see anything, you mean,” Hawkwind corrected.
“We’ll have to move silently, and use our ears. Rainsoft, you know how to open the doors to the rooms where the griffins are kept?”
“A little,” he gestured. “It looked like a pulley system. I only saw briefly.”
“As long as we don’t need to find keys, we can figure it out.”
“You’re really serious?” Hawkwind interrupted. “You want us to go back.”
The mage gave her a firm look. “I thought I made that clear, Hawkwind. I’ve helped you fetch the Sunstone. You’ll help me discover my brother’s fate and save Rainsoft’s family, and the others.”
“But,” she trailed off.
A shadow echo of the moment when she’d suddenly been at peace, happy even, floating in a fuzzy sea of soft sunlight and dandelion fluff, wafted through her body and mind. When she’d seen the talis, all had faded: her fears, her worries, her joys, and her thoughts. Contentment unlike she’d ever felt had stolen over her like a pond swallowing a dropped stone. She couldn’t have fought it any more than the stone could have floated back to the surface of the pond.
When Rainsoft touched her shoulder, she returned to herself, sitting there on the mountain with him and Thornfire, night breezes whispering around the peaks, as rapidly as if he’d slapped her. Hawkwind noted her legs trembling and her heart racing. Thornfire was regarding her coolly.
“I can’t go back,” she whispered. “What if I see a talis again?”
Thornfire nodded. “If you see a talis again, the same thing will happen. You will swim in a serenity that will linger even as it swallows you. The same thing will happen to me.” He leaned forward. “But if it is dark, you can’t see it. In the hallways, at night, you will not be able to see enough to be hypnotized. Look up, Hawkwind. The moon is hidden tonight.”
She shook her head. “The darkness is another fear. The talis could be hiding in the dark, and we can’t see them, but if we did see them, we’d be helpless. If we fight them, we have to fight something we can’t see. What if they can see us in the dark?”
“This is our best chance, tonight, in the cold dark, while they squabble over the last of the hot water,” Thornfire said. “I need your help.”
Hawkwind clenched her bill and claws.
“Be brave,” Rainsoft gestured. “Face your fears. Help me find my family, please.”
How could she say no? But how could she bear to go back there?
“I’ll go,” she managed to gulp out.
“Thank you,” Thornfire told her. “Get some sleep. I’ll wake you when it’s time to leave.”
Rainsoft headed for his room, while Thornfire headed back towards the camp center. Hawkwind followed Rainsoft and joined him in his room without asking, but the charcoal griffin gave no sign of objection. He curled around her and held her while she trembled herself into shallow sleep, which lasted until Thornfire woke them in the deepest, blackest pit of pre-dawn morning.
The sky was only a single shade lighter than black, and the mountain rocks were only a shade or two lighter than that. Even the wind had died down, so the night felt like a hollow, cold cave, coated with icy dust that hadn’t been touched since the infancy of the oldest trees. Hawkwind and Rainsoft stood silently together with Thornfire before they launched off in turn, catching the frigid air under their feathers and following the mage down to the broken rooftops of the city.
They dropped down onto a balcony and slipped into a building, quieter than falling leaves. Hawkwind’s eyes were as wide as possible, trying to suck in light so she could detect the slightest movement. The trio wound down through hallways and staircases, descending into a labyrinth that Hawkwind wondered how she’d ever find her way out of again. She didn’t know what they were looking for; only Rainsoft did.
When Rainsoft finally touched her haunch, and she touched Thornfire’s so he’d stop too, it occurred to her that they had a plan, of a sort, for finding the captive griffins, but no plan for getting them out safely. She suspected this must be a cell; that Rainsoft had stopped them because they’d reached one, and now she didn’t know what they would do. Too late, Rainsoft was opening the door by feel, and he and Thornfire were pulling it open just enough for them to slip through. She followed, not knowing what else to do.
Once inside, Thornfire immediately created the dimmest light she’d ever seen. Four sets of eyes shone back at them, from four griffins curled up together in a nest of old blankets, cushions, and feathers. The room was fairly large, and had a rickety old bookcase with a bunch of books on it; a table; some stones that appeared to have been chipped or worn into spheres; a pile of bones, horns, and antlers that looked to have been carved into a variety of shapes like tools and toys; and a pit in one corner that Hawkwind suspected was the privy. The scent of waste and unwashed griffin mingled with the reek of talis. A barred window high on the wall let in the least bit of nighttime light. There also seemed to be a hatch up near the ceiling, and directly below it on the floor sat a big stone basin as black as pitch.
Rainsoft strode forward confidently, and Thornfire paced him, as if they’d worked it out in advance. The mage lit up the former captive’s hands, and Rainsoft began speaking rapidly. Hawkwind had a moment of panic that all the captive griffins might not speak the same hand language. How could isolated families manage to make a language they all spoke?
The prisoners, however, began gesturing back after a few minutes, and the conversation seemed to go on. There were two adults and two juveniles in the nest. Luckily, the smallest juvenile was fledged, although whether any of them would be able to fly in escape was unlikely, based on Rainsoft’s history. Hawkwind eyed the group more carefully and noted their skinny chests. Unlike herself and all the other griffins she’d ever known, who had round, barrel-like chests, these ones had narrow, sharp chests with jutting keel bones. They didn’t have the pectoral muscles necessary for flight. A glance at Rainsoft showed that he had developed a fair set of muscles there, although he was not as filled out as Thornfire.
“This is taking a long time,” Thornfire muttered as the conversation went on.
Before Hawkwind could respond, one of the adult prisoners suddenly stood and nodded. He or she prodded the other adult and nudged the juveniles. Rainsoft turned to Hawkwind and Thornfire.
“They’ll come,” he gestured.
“Your family?” Hawkwind asked by hand.
“No,” he answered. “Maybe the next room.”
“We’re just going to collect a bunch of griffins?” Hawkwind whispered to Thornfire as the mage put out the light. “We’re going to somehow lead them out, dozens of them, maybe more, among hundreds of sleeping talis, in the dark, when we don’t even know the way out from here?”
“Yes,” he told her simply, turning to lead them all out the door.
They stopped to shut the door and moved on down the hallway. At least the darkness would prevent the freed griffins from having sensory overload, Hawkwind supposed. The next door was not far, and they repeated the procedure, but the griffins in that room went along more quickly, perhaps because of the presence of other prisoners. Over the next hour, they worked their way down the hallway, visiting more than a dozen rooms, and collecting about forty griffins so that the hallway was filled with them.
“There must be another hallway,” Thornfire hissed. “Your family?”
Hawkwind could just barely see Rainsoft shake his head.
“My brother isn’t here either,” the mage went on. “Let’s take these griffins up into higher rooms, where they’ll be safer, leave them there, and continue. We have some more time before sunrise.”
Hawkwind didn’t argue, although she wondered how the prisoners would feel about being left in a strange place by griffins they didn’t know or fully trust yet. When at last they were installed in a big room with windows that they looked out of at the black mountains in awe, Thornfire turned to Hawkwind.
“I need you to stay with them,” he said. “Rainsoft and I will finish and bring the other prisoners here.”
“What? No,” she retorted without thinking. “What if you don’t come back?”
“Then you lead these griffins back to camp, and then back to South-scree,” he said.
“I don’t know the way,” she argued.
“You and Starbright can find the way, but don’t worry. We’ll be back. Rainsoft, let’s go.”
In the darkness it was hard to tell, but she thought the charcoal griffin gave her a long, lingering look before he and Thornfire disappeared into the darkness of the stairwell. When she turned around, helpless and afraid, around forty sets of eyes were glimmering at her. There was slightly more light here than down in the hallways, but everything was still a mass of dark shapes except for the slightly lighter rectangles of the windows.
“Don’t worry,” she said with her hands, making the gestures big in the hopes that the prisoners could all see. “We will wait. They will come back. They will bring more griffins. We will all leave together.”
Hawkwind couldn’t tell if her words had calmed them; they seemed remarkably calm already. Perhaps this experience was so overwhelming that they had mostly shut down mentally, and were just following with the flock. Gradually, the griffins began to talk among themselves, and then begin to move about hesitantly, followed by sudden short spurts of movement and soft rumbles and coos of happiness.
“They’re finding their lost family members,” she breathed, “the children and siblings that were taken away.”
Silently, Hawkwind waited, watching the sky and watching the door. Many of the griffins cuddled up together and the gentle breathing of sleep filled the room. The sky began to lighten almost imperceptibly. Hawkwind wondered if an hour had passed. She could feel it creeping up on her. Dawn was coming and Thornfire and Rainsoft weren’t back. Unable to sit still, she started pacing.
She stopped pacing when one of the former captives approached her.
“You are,” the captive hesitated, as if not sure how to word it, “from not-here?”
Hawkwind nodded. “Yes. I can only speak a little with my hands.”
“I heard you speak from here.” The captive touched her throat. “We can’t.”
“I learned to speak with my hands from Rainsoft,” Hawkwind explained, “but I’m still learning.”
“Rainsoft is your mate?”
Hawkwind choked, instinctively making the gesture Rainsoft used when he couldn’t or didn’t want to answer a question, something like a shrug and a wince and a suppressive wave combined. The lady prisoner did not press her query.
“Rainsoft and the other, will come back soon?”
“I hope so.”
“The talis will kill us,” Hawkwind said. “They will kill you all. They keep you so they can kill you when they want.” She sighed. “It’s more complicated than that. I can’t explain.”
“I am Icemoon,” the ex-prisoner said readily, again judiciously not pressing her questions. “I will go with you. Let’s find them.”
Hawkwind caught her breath. “If I am caught, no one can lead your people to safety.”
Icemoon turned her head, looking out towards the windows. “We have seen mountains, only spoken of in legends. To have seen mountains, it is all right if we die here now.”
The sky was perceptibly lighter now. She didn’t intend to let all the newly freed griffins die, but Hawkwind made her choice in an instant.