The Lost Brother
Hawkwind and Icemoon retraced their steps. Down in the hallways it was still dark as night, but like a night with a moon now; some of the early dawn was managing to filter down. Together they had finished one whole hallway and Hawkwind didn’t know where Thornfire and Rainsoft might have gone next, but from the landing of the stairs a short and narrow corridor led away opposite the finished hallway and Hawkwind went down it with Icemoon right behind her.
The corridor opened into another hallway with locking doors along it, just like the raided one. Hawkwind could only imagine that Thornfire and Rainsoft had come this way and freed the occupants, but she had to be sure. It was possible they’d turned off the stairs before reaching the bottom. When she went to the first door, Icemoon followed along, helping her open it. She stuck her head inside, expecting to see an empty nest—but it was full.
Hawkwind’s jaw dropped as she saw two adult griffins looking back at her. When she squeezed through the doorway, Icemoon followed her in. Had Thornfire and Rainsoft not made it here, or had these griffins refused to come? Hawkwind had no magic to create light, but Icemoon stood in the faint glow coming through the open door and the barred window high above and began gesturing hurriedly. After a few minutes, the griffins in the nest began talking back and glancing at each other. In another couple minutes, they stood and joined Hawkwind and Icemoon.
Hawkwind hid a groan. While ecstatic to be rescuing more griffins, she now had more to take care of. Once outside the room, with the door shut again, they moved down the hallway to the next door and repeated the process. A half an hour on, the walls of the hallway were becoming visible and Hawkwind had a couple dozen more griffins trailing her. There were still more doors. She hadn’t found Thornfire and Rainsoft like she’d wanted to. She feared running into awakening talis at any moment.
They kept going. Wisely, Icemoon described to the prisoners how to reach the room where the others were waiting, and sent groups of them off in that direction. It kept the hallway population down as they pushed on. Every closed door meant more helpless griffins destined to die having never flown, never hunted, and never seen the world, so every door had to be opened.
Hawkwind paid close attention to the scents in the air. Everything smelled like talis but she hadn’t yet been swamped by a wave of stench that would indicate one nearby. Her nerves tightened with the rising light and she resisted the urge to pick at her feathers as the freed griffins took the time to convince new prisoners to join them in every room she opened.
At last, only one closed door remained before the next narrow, door-less corridor. Icemoon sent another group of prisoners towards the gathering room several floors up, except for a few who apparently chose to stay. In the morning light, Hawkwind could see her colors now. Icemoon was a light, delicate grey with lots of white markings. Her eyes were blue. She looked older than Hawkwind had expected, but nowhere near elderly. Icemoon gave her a nervous smile and nodded at the final door.
They took hold of the chains and pulled, lifting the heavy latch so they could push it open. Hawkwind stuck her head inside to see a single adult griffin curled up in its nest. Rusty red, black, and soft brown feathers and fur rose and fell with sleeping breaths, but then the griffin stirred and lifted its head.
“Well,” he said, “and who have we here?”
A chirping trill came from the nest and a skinny grey and black animal scampered up to sit on the griffin’s head. Hawkwind’s heart thudded and her skin shivered.
“Are you Thornwing?” Hawkwind demanded.
“I believe I asked first,” he countered with a wry tilt to his head. “Let’s hurry. The sun is up. You play a dangerous game.”
The rusty red griffin leapt from the nest, his animal companion hanging onto his fur. Then the wave of scent hit them. Rank and foul, the reek rolled over them like choking gas.
“Close your eyes,” the freshly freed prisoner ordered.
That now-familiar screeching hiss grated on Hawkwind’s ears. She stared firmly down at the ground and tried to discern the direction the talis was coming from. They’d made it out the room’s door, but now she had no idea where to go.
“Left, left, go left,” her new companion instructed.
A shove to her shoulder confirmed the direction. Hawkwind tried to obey, and bumped into Icemoon. Gambling that there were no talis in the direction she faced now, Hawkwind looked up to see the lady griffin staring blankly over Hawkwind’s shoulder. The other three griffins with them were the same. Behind her, the rusty red prisoner screamed a battle cry. Along with it, she heard the furious chattering scolding of the little animal that had been with him.
Gritting her bill, Hawkwind slapped Icemoon hard across the face, making her stumble. Hawkwind seized her bill before she could look back up and pointed her head away from the talis.
“Go,” Hawkwind heard from behind her.
Hawkwind shoved Icemoon, trying to get her moving, and smacked the next entranced prisoner, repeating the same process of grabbing his bill and pointing him away. She screeched at them all, shoving and slapping, while the sound of the newly freed male prisoner fighting the talis echoed through the hallway. It surely couldn’t have been more than several seconds, but it seemed like forever to get the group moving.
“Hurry,” he cried. “There’s too many. I can’t hold them off. Run!”
Hawkwind screeched again, slapping any haunch that wasn’t moving fast enough, getting the prisoners to run along the hallway as quick as they could. Then the new prisoner cried out in pain and fear, and Hawkwind paused.
“Keep going,” he ordered. “Get away. Leave me.”
“I can’t,” Hawkwind shouted back. “We came here for you.”
The running group vanished into the corridor ahead. The new prisoner had fought the talis, so they clearly hadn’t hypnotized him. He also spoke aloud. Hawkwind could think of no other possibility than that he was Thornwing, Thornfire’s brother. She couldn’t leave him behind. Hawkwind closed her eyes tight, turned, and threw herself, claws extended, into whatever battle was going on behind her.
She was betting that Thornwing was down, so she struck high. She hit scaled flesh, the dry, slippery feel of it making her skin crawl, but the angry hisses of the talis encouraged her, and she struck out again.
“My eyes are shut,” she panted, “stay out of my way.”
“Move to your left,” he instructed. “I’ll fight on the right. We retreat slowly. I’ll tell you what to do, just keep striking out as fast as you can.”
“Are you all right?”
“I’m hurt, but I can make it if I don’t get hit again.”
Hawkwind slowly backed up, tottering on her hind legs, wings partly open for balance, trying to keep slashing in an irregular pattern.
“Reinforcements are coming,” Thornwing bemoaned. “The hallway is filling with talis behind these ones. Where are we going?”
“Through the narrow corridor behind us, then up the stairs. We freed all the prisoners, I think.”
“There are too many talis. The prisoners will just be hypnotized.”
They fought on for several more steps. Hawkwind grunted as something impacted her right forearm, but she stubbornly kept her eyes shut. The wound didn’t feel disabling, only bruising.
“What do we do?” she asked breathlessly.
“We die bravely,” Thornwing panted back. “Thank you for freeing me, so I can die on my feet.”
“No,” she objected. “Your brother came for you. Thornfire is here. We came to save you.”
“Thornfire,” he repeated, like a prayer. “Where is he?”
“We got separated.”
“Fall back, fall back,” he ordered suddenly, and Hawkwind scrambled to obey.
A heavy weight hit her face, but her bill took most of the blow, and her eyes were shut, so she didn’t feel like she got hurt. Hawkwind snapped at whatever it had been and managed to rip into a bit of talis flesh, earning her a hiss of pain from the beast. Beside her, Thornwing grunted.
“You’re hurt?” she demanded.
“What’s your name?” he asked instead, voice tight.
“Thank you, Hawkwind, for getting me out. Run now. Tell my brother I love him.”
“No,” she cried back at him.
“You can’t help me,” he pled. “Go now.”
Hawkwind heard a commotion behind her.
“Get down!” a voice trumpeted.
Hawkwind flung herself back and down, bruising her body on the hard flagstone floor. Her skin suddenly sharpened and prickled with cold, as if she’d fallen into an icy snow bank. A sound she’d never heard before, a crackling, hissing sort of ongoing squeak shivered through the air, and when she drew a breath it chilled her lungs like the darkest pit of winter.
“Rainsoft, go,” the thunderous voice commanded, and Hawkwind’s heart leapt.
He was here, and that other was Thornfire, giving orders. Her eyes still shut; she only sensed a body leaping over her. The dismayed shrieking of the talis, however, she heard clearly. She could guess what had happened. Thornfire had used his magic, sucking the heat out of the air and the talis, dramatically dropping their temperature and slowing them down. The warm-blooded griffins had not been so badly affected, giving them an advantage.
“Hawkwind, pull back,” she heard Thornwing order. “We’ve got this, but don’t look yet.”
She got to her feet and scrambled back until she hit a warm body, opening her eyes to see dull tan legs before her.
“Thornfire,” she greeted. “It’s Thornwing, that’s Thornwing back there. I found him.”
Hawkwind looked up at him so she could see his expression, although he was still pointed back at the conflict so his eyes were shut. All that was missing were the tears, and they came a moment later, turning to ice crystals almost immediately, like silver jewelry on his cheek feathers.
Rainsoft and Thornwing ran up beside them, Thornwing limping and dripping blood. His slender little grey animal friend still clung to his shoulder, hissing through bared tiny fangs. Hawkwind supposed the beastie had been fighting, too. It panted like it was exhausted and was smeared with blood.
“Let’s go,” Thornwing said. “They’re drawing back for now.”
The four griffins fled back down the hallway, into the corridor, up the stairs to the top room where Hawkwind had left the first prisoners they’d freed. The room was packed now. Hawkwind guessed there must be around a hundred and fifty griffins: adults, juveniles, fledglings, and even a few tiny chicks clinging to their parents’ backs. She supposed there must be pregnant females, too, but didn’t take the time to start examining the griffins around her for signs.
Thornwing and Thornfire were embracing, only pausing for Thornfire to run his cauterizing magic over his younger brother’s wounds. “Wing, you’re bitten?” Thornfire was murmuring. “Let me burn it out of you, so you can run.”
Rainsoft had immediately posted himself as lookout at the top of the stairs and Hawkwind went to him. She could have stopped herself, but she chose not to. Pressing up against him and burying her bill in his neck feathers felt like the most important and rewarding thing she could do, so she did it. His trill of welcome and his wing encircling her confirmed that her choice was indeed the absolute best thing she could have done, and they got to stay that way for a couple minutes.
“We need to get moving,” Thornfire’s voice threw a rock into the pool of contentment Hawkwind had sunken into.
She sighed only a little over the hollow left inside her when she had to pull away from Rainsoft.
“The talis won’t be held back for long,” Thornwing added. “We must get out of the city. This way.”
Rainsoft translated to the group at large, and most of them looked willingly to Thornwing, who waded through them to the doorway on the other side of the room.
“We won’t be flying,” Thornfire reminded his brother, following him through the crowd.
“I know how to get to an exit on foot from here.”
The crowd began to move, and Hawkwind let them go before her. Rainsoft stayed in place, probably intending to be the rear guard. It took some time for all the griffins to move out of the room and the Thorn brothers had disappeared into the mass of griffins. Hawkwind went with the last few of them, and Rainsoft followed her, glancing frequently over his shoulder.
The talis didn’t catch up until some minutes later. Rainsoft’s screech of warning alerted the group.
“Thornfire!” Hawkwind yelled, hoping he would hear, wherever he was in the moving column.
As Rainsoft engaged the talis, Hawkwind kept the former prisoners from looking back, and slapped and screamed at them whenever they turned around to look, but she couldn’t get to them all—some fell behind. Thornfire and Thornwing came shoving through the crowd to get back to them.
“Rainsoft, get away,” Thornwing commanded, and then to his brother, once Rainsoft was clear, “now, Fire.”
Hawkwind’s skin tightened with cold again, and Thornwing moved past her. The hissing and impact of claws on scaled flesh told her that he and Rainsoft were maiming and killing as many cold-disabled talis as they could. The column of prisoners kept moving, but more slowly without a leader who knew where to go.
“Hawkwind, go to the front,” Thornwing commanded. “Keep going down the hall they’re on, then take the staircase up four levels and go straight until the next staircase, go down one level and straight again. If I’m not with you by that time, just keep going wherever you can.”
She obeyed, although leaving them was painful, and she could only assume the worst for the prisoners that she hadn’t been able to keep from looking back at the talis. The crowd of griffins let her pass through and when she reached the front of the column, she followed Thornwing’s directions. The staircase wasn’t far, but she had to resist dallying; she was afraid they would run into more talis from the front. Regardless, Hawkwind led as swiftly as she could, but the captives seemed to have a hard time keeping up, already panting. She supposed if she had spent every day of her life sitting in a room without exercise, she would tire rapidly, too, so she tried to keep her patience.
As she neared the end of Thornwing’s directions, he came pushing through the flock, breathing heavily and wincing with pain.
“Everyone alright?” she asked.
“I’m afraid we lost a few of the prisoners. There was nothing we could do: too many talis and the prisoners hypnotized and immobile. I think their suffering was brief.” Thornwing paused, shaking his head. “Fire’s getting tired,” he told her. “It’s a good thing we’re fighting in these narrow hallways. By ourselves we drove the talis back, but Rainsoft and I were both injured. Fire had to heal us. With all the magic he’s been throwing around, he’ll be exhausted soon. We should be beyond the reach of the talis shortly, though. This way.”
Thornwing took over leading and Hawkwind was relieved to be able to drop back into the first ranks of the running griffins. She soon recognized a hallway they ran through as one Thornfire had shown her and Rainsoft on their first foray in the city. The exit wasn’t far away, and a good thing, too; the griffins were flagging.
Some hallways and corners and corridors and stairways later, Thornwing stepped aside and waved the crowd past into the final rooms before the exit. Hawkwind stopped beside him and stood clutching a stitch in her side. Running up and down dozens of stairways was not exactly the exercise griffins were most suited for. Around her, exhausted captives were collapsing to the floor.
“We’re lucky the talis aren’t brighter,” Thornwing said. “They can come up with solutions to problems, but it takes them time. They aren’t as quick as us in making snap decisions and planning quick strategies. If they were, they would have found a way to flank us and cut us off, but they can’t think ahead, so they just tried to chase us.”
The last of the train of griffins squeezed into the final rooms. Rainsoft and Thornfire staggered up along with them. Hawkwind stepped beside Rainsoft and they leaned against each other.
“It’s still a long way to go,” Thornfire grimaced.
“Do you think it’s safe to rest here a few minutes?” Hawkwind asked. “Some of them won’t make it up the trails without a breather.”
“A short few minutes,” the mage grunted as he lowered himself to the floor. “I need a rest, too.”
“Do you want to fly up to the camp and send down Starbright?” Hawkwind suggested.
“I can make it. I don’t want to risk her in a fight with talis. She isn’t ready for that.”
Hawkwind didn’t argue. “How many griffins did we lose?”
“Probably about a dozen,” Thornfire winced.
“Did the talis recapture them?”
“Killed them outright,” the mage said. “The talis are furious.”
Hawkwind lowered herself to the floor. “Where did you go? I went to find you and discovered the other half of the hallway on the first floor, but where were you and Rainsoft?”
“We emptied the rooms on the second floor, both sides of the stairwell. We’d checked the other levels above them, but they didn’t have rooms of captives. We were coming down to do your section. Luckily, you’d already cleaned it out,” he explained. “If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have finished before the talis came.”
“I would still be imprisoned?” Thornwing remarked.
“You told her to stay behind?”
“With the ones we’d already freed,” she confirmed. “Then dawn started coming and I got worried, so I went to look for them.”
“I’m grateful you did,” he smiled at her.
A nervous little flutter went through Hawkwind’s belly, but she didn’t pause to examine why. A warm flush of pride at a lucky job well done washed the flutter away.
“I’m grateful, too,” Thornfire added. “I hadn’t realized there would be so many griffins to free, or that it would take so long.”
Hawkwind looked over the gathered griffins. They huddled together, peering about with caution and curiosity. Most of them were young. In fact, Hawkwind didn’t see any old ones, and she knew why. Once the pairs got old enough that they stopped reproducing the talis would have taken them for sacrificing on the rusty hooks.
Thornfire got to his feet after a few more breaths. “We should keep moving.”