Hawkwind awoke with a start as the sound of running feet broke through her slumber. Cries of alarm followed, and then eight little hands were shoving at her, and four voices called, “Hawkwind, Hawkwind, get up.”
She surged to her feet, seeing a group of five panting griffins gesturing, “go, go, they’re not far behind us.”
Hawkwind didn’t need to ask whom they meant.
“Wake up,” she ordered, “on your feet, go. Swift, Starbright, start running.”
Four random and otherwise unburdened Snow-in-lee griffins hopped over to Hawkwind, gesturing that they would volunteer to carry the children. Hawkwind didn’t argue, commanding the little humans to get aboard and sending the four griffins after Swift. Everyone was awake now, and the crowd was pushing into the exit of the cave, away from where they’d started, deeper towards the heart of the mountain.
Hawkwind struggled to get to the front of the pack, since she and Starbright had the best chance of finding the right path. She supposed the talis had probably gotten lost in the caves, too, and maybe that had delayed them. Now, they would be able to follow the big group of griffins if they got within sound, sight, or scent of them.
“Starbright,” Hawkwind said, “don’t drop anymore glowing stones. Everyone hide your glowing stones, if you have one, and follow by touch and sound. No light, so if the talis attack, we can fight them without seeing them.”
“What about your Sunstone?” Starbright replied.
“I’ll stay at the front of the pack, and hopefully all these griffins will be enough to block the light coming from it. That’s the best we can do without something else to wrap around it.”
It took time, but all the griffins got moving into the tunnels again, and Hawkwind led them on as fast as she could go. She had to hope that the talis were getting tired and cold and would soon give up. No one spoke. They encountered snow-screamers from time to time and fought them off.
As more hours passed, Hawkwind began to wonder if it would be safe to stop again. She could see that most of the chicks were being carried. Everyone was exhausted again. They had no food and no water, and soon they would be a two-day journey from the cave mouth. Could talis go that long without warmth, water, and food? Hawkwind feared they could.
Finally, at another large cave through which the tunnel ran, Hawkwind called another stop. Everyone collapsed in piles.
“This can’t go on,” Swift said, coming to Hawkwind’s side.
“I know,” she agreed. “It’s time to stop running.”
“Do you think the talis are still back there?”
“I don’t know, but it’s time we face them if they are.”
Swift’s jaw muscles bulged as she clenched her bill. “You’re right. Let’s get it organized.”
Hawkwind went to Starbright, who was possibly the most exhausted of them all. The four human children had gathered around her and were petting her.
“Starbright,” Hawkwind summoned, “everyone, listen please. It is time to make a stand.”
Kassandra got up and began translating with her hands in the faint light of the Sunstone.
“I want all the chicks and fledglings, with Starbright and anyone who is wounded, to go into a small side tunnel. Find a cave. Put the young ones at the back with the Sunstone and Moonstone. Cover up the Sunstone so no light escapes. Wait in silence. Either the talis will find you, and you fight to the death in the darkness, where you can’t be entranced, or the rest of us will come and get you when the talis are all dead or fled.”
Cold silence met her words, but around the room griffins began nodding.
“Those who can fight, we turn around, we find the talis in the dark tunnels behind us, and we kill them,” Hawkwind concluded.
There were more somber nods. Hawkwind waited a few moments in case there were any objections.
“Let’s do it, then,” she murmured.
With quiet efficiency griffins began moving. Hawkwind transferred the Sunstone to Joy. The most wounded of the griffins began gathering the chicks and fledglings.
“Jessika, Rikah, Karo, Kassandra,” Hawkwind whispered to the children, “I need you to go with Joy.”
“You take care of us,” Jessika argued.
“I am,” she replied. “I’m going to save your lives by killing the talis.”
“You’ll come back,” Karo said.
“If I don’t, Joy will take care of you.”
Hawkwind locked gazes with Joy, and the little female nodded, but Hawkwind’s heart wrenched. She was placing her burden onto another young griffin: one even younger than she was. How long could these children be kept alive? Hawkwind forced herself to breathe through the pain before it overtook her.
“I will,” Joy promised.
“If I don’t come back, and you survive whatever might come from the talis, Starbright will lead you all to South-scree,” Hawkwind promised.
On the other side of the cave, Starbright had gathered her group. “We’re ready,” she called. “Hawkwind, we will bear to the left. Come find us that way.”
“You’ll hear me calling once it’s safe,” she said. “Get going.”
Starbright didn’t look back as she led the children, youngest griffins, and wounded adults away: that left Hawkwind with a couple dozen relatively healthy adults. Among them were the elders that had spoken with Rocksky, Rainsoft’s parents and brother, and others that Hawkwind knew or didn’t know, that wanted to join Lines or didn’t want to. At the moment, they all just wanted to survive.
The last of the light left the cave with Starbright, and the group was plunged into complete darkness. Hawkwind knew which way to turn, and began walking back the way they had come. In the tunnels, her eyes were now useless. She even relaxed enough to close them some of the time. She felt a griffin at her right and at her left with her partly extended wings. Occasionally another one would bump into her tail feathers. She listened. Everyone tried to make their footsteps silent. Talis had to slide their scaled bodies along the ground. Surely that would make noise? Surely the griffins would hear them coming?
They walked for what must have been an hour or two and encountered nothing. Hawkwind hoped they were still on the main tunnel. It had been relatively straight between the previous resting cave and the later one. Hopefully the talis hadn’t turned off, such that the griffin fighting force passed them, and then the talis returned to the main tunnel and continued on, only to find the cave of non-fighters.
Hawkwind would have pricked her ears if she could have when the subtle and constant sound of movement came from ahead of her. It wasn’t footsteps, and it wasn’t the sound of snow-screamers, which tended to snuffle and huff and grunt as they moved, but it wasn’t what she’d expected the sound of snake-like bodies sliding over gritty rock to make. She hadn’t actually ever stopped to listen to a big snake moving before, though, so she didn’t pause to worry too much; she just set her feet, feeling the others stop, too.
The noise wasn’t loud, and over soft dirt or a clean floor it probably would have been silent. Like a soft and steady shifting of sand the source of the noise came nearer. Hawkwind’s adrenaline kicked up and her heart began pounding. Any moment now it would arrive: whatever was making the noise.
A wave of stench rolled over the griffin fighters and several sharp hisses came from the tunnel ahead. They had met the talis, and somehow the talis knew they were there.
“Fight,” Hawkwind screamed, and then the battle began.
She took a hit immediately as a talis bit into her shoulder, almost too near her neck. She bit back, and reared up to rake her claws along its neck and chest. Perhaps the talis hadn’t expected such resistance; it let go. Hawkwind didn’t let go. She pressed forward with part of it still clamped in her bill. She pushed down, digging the sharp point into scaly flesh, and grabbed it with her hands, pinning it, walking up onto it with her hand claws and leaving puncture wounds all along its body.
Around her, talis and griffin were engaging, and she could see none of it. She began trilling in her throat whenever she could, to give an auditory clue as to where she was, and right away the other griffins began copying her. That told her that a few griffins had passed her and more were behind her.
Hawkwind began trying to back up, dragging her thrashing talis with her. She heard and felt a couple more griffins clamber over her to engage more talis. She was able to pin her prey down and try to get a better grip with her bill. The talis was bigger around than the neck of a deer or anything else she usually killed, even bigger around than a rainbow drake. Its strength was enormous and it took all of Hawkwind’s to keep it pinned.
She felt another griffin stumble and bump shoulders with her. The talis screeched with pain, and Hawkwind suspected the other griffin had done something to hurt it. Hawkwind dug her bill deeper and sunk her claws harder, then lifted one hand and began slashing over and over again at the same bit of talis, until she felt the skin shred and blood soak her fur. She kept slashing, making the wound deeper and bigger, carving out flesh, and the talis writhed with greater urgency. It twisted and she felt it bite her forearm, fangs sinking deep.
Hawkwind had been bitten twice now, and a little voice chimed in at the back of her mind, recalling what Thornfire had once said. Talis were slow. They let their venom weaken their prey. Then they follow and collect the prey when it can no longer run or fight. Hawkwind didn’t know how long that would take; she would fight hard for as long as she could.
Her claws dug deeper into the wound she’d made, until a sudden spurt of cool blood hit her chest. The talis shuddered. She kept clawing, ripping the wound larger. Within another minute, the beast stopped struggling. Its grip on her forearm loosened, and the head fell away. Around her, griffins were still trilling. The fighting continued. A piece of talis thumped into Hawkwind’s side. She turned and fastened her claws upon it. Like before, she began slashing until she’d made a wound, and then she enlarged it.
Fewer griffins were trilling. Fewer talis were hissing.
Then, a blinding light came from the tunnel ahead.
“Close your eyes,” ordered Thornwing in a thundering voice, and Hawkwind obeyed before the light could reveal the hypnotic scale patterns of the talis.
Sharp cold pierced her: Thornfire. The talis stopped struggling.
“Catch that one,” Thornwing shouted, but no one could open their eyes to do so without getting entranced.
Hawkwind stretched out her arms and wings to try to stop anything from getting past her, but felt nothing. Then someone went flying over her head; she felt tail feathers brush over her face.
“That was Rainsoft,” Thornwing spoke. “He’s after it. Griffins, if you can move, turn back the way you came and move away from the battle.”
Hawkwind tried to turn, unhooking her claws from her latest prey. She limped up the tunnel. Behind her she heard weak hisses and the sound of slitting flesh. Griffins were bumping against her as they moved away.
“You’re beyond them, and I’ve killed them all,” Thornwing announced. “Open your eyes.”
Hawkwind did so, but her vision swam. She stumbled. The air was still so cold. Her feet had stopped working. She fell to the floor.
“Hawkwind.” It was Thornfire this time. “You’re bitten. So are others. Hang on.”
“I’m dragging the wounded to this point,” Thornwing announced.
“We’ll do what we can.” That was Rocksky’s voice.
Hawkwind managed to look up. Rocksky and Thornfire, and a few others were pulling off blindfolds. They immediately turned them into bandages, but there were so many wounds, and so few blindfolds.
“A talis got away?” Hawkwind slurred.
“Just one,” Rocksky confirmed. “Rainsoft will catch it.”
“The little ones,” she mumbled. “Starbright.”
“What about Starbright?” came Thornfire’s urgent reply.
“She has them,” Hawkwind breathed, feeling drained of all energy. “Ahead. Bear left after the big cave.”
“I’ll go,” Thornwing said. “This is the last of the wounded. The rest are beyond help.”
Hawkwind tried to sob. Some of her griffins had died.
“We’ll come soon,” Thornfire told him, and Hawkwind heard Thornwing run off. “Hawkwind, relax.”
She felt him put a hand on her belly. “Yes,” he murmured. “I’m going to burn the venom out of you. It will hurt. You would be able to endure while your body fights the venom, normally, but it will hurt your chick if I don’t purge it now. Bear it.”
Hawkwind’s heart lurched and she almost managed to open her eyes. Then she felt her body light on fire. It wasn’t real fire, of course, but Thornfire’s magic ran through her flesh and blood and bone like lightning, and it lit up her every nerve. She would have screamed if she’d had the energy, but all that came from her was a gurgle of agony as her body arched and quivered.
“Don’t worry,” she heard Thornfire murmur. “The venom works slowly. It hadn’t reached your core yet. It’ll be alright.”
He could tell? His magic told him everything about what was happening inside her?
“This is life magic,” he went on softly. “It is far more powerful than any other, no matter what the dark mages like to believe.”
Hawkwind cracked her eyelids enough to look up. Rocksky and two other griffins were standing behind Thornfire with a hand on his back. Thornfire had both his hands on Hawkwind’s head. He gave her a little smile while she watched the waves of magic ruffle through his feathers and fur.
“They’re giving me energy,” he explained calmly. “I ran out of my own yesterday. Is the pain subsiding now?”
Hawkwind found she could breathe more easily. The burning was becoming sullen and dull. “Yes.”
“I’m chasing down the last of the venom. I’m almost done.”
Hawkwind relaxed further as the life-fire-magic ebbed and faded. Thornfire said she had a chick. She hadn’t sensed it herself yet, but she didn’t know what she was supposed to feel, and maybe she wouldn’t have been able to sense it herself for more days or weeks. At last, the pain in her melted away, except for the physical damage done by the bites themselves.
She opened her eyes again. “What about the others?”
“There are two dead,” Rocksky said gently, “here. There are more in the caves behind you, and more wounded. The other wounded ones here are being seen to. Their bodies can handle the venom; it won’t kill them.”
“I’ll check all the awakened females,” Thornfire said wearily, “just to be sure.”
The mage walked off with one of Rocksky’s scouts following him.
“Up you get, Hawkmother,” Rocksky urged. “You said there are others in danger.”
The shock of hearing she’d conceived was washed away by the recollection that her human children were still in hiding. If the talis reached them before Thornwing and Rainsoft could take it down, the young and wounded in the hiding cave would fight for their lives, too. Hawkwind pushed herself to her feet. She swayed and Rocksky caught her.
“This way,” Hawkwind pointed. “Swift?”
She looked around, not seeing her Linemember. Her breath got stuck. No. Swift couldn’t be dead. Hawkwind needed her.
“She’s here, Hawkwind,” one of the scouts called, and Hawkwind stumbled over. “She got a lot of venom, but she’ll be alright.”
Swift looked to be unconscious, stretched out on the floor and bloody with bite marks, but her sides still moved.
“Please, watch over her,” Hawkwind begged.
The big female stirred. Without opening her eyes she signed, “Joy?”
“I’m going to get her,” Hawkwind stated aloud. “Stay here and heal.”
Without waiting for a reply, Hawkwind launched herself down the tunnel, careening off the walls and tripping over her own feet. Rocksky and another scout followed. Rocksky was carrying a glow-stone, so Hawkwind’s shadow stretched out black in front of her. She couldn’t keep up the running for long, but she pushed herself as hard as she could, only ever slowing to a fast walk to catch her breath. Even wounded, she made better time back to the second rest cave than her fighting group had going out to meet the talis.
From there, she began taking left turns, as Starbright had said she would.
“We could meet the talis at any moment,” Hawkwind panted. “Starbright said she would take her group of chicks and the wounded as far left as possible and hole up in a tiny cave where they can defend the entrance. There’s no way to know which way the talis went, or where Thornwing and Rainsoft went.”
She continued bearing left, always left: only checking right hand passages visually in case there was any sign of talis or other griffins.
Then they heard the screaming fledglings. Hawkwind sprinted ahead and the others followed, making their shadows bob and jerk all over the walls, floor, and ceiling as Rocksky’s glow-stone bounced about as she tried to get it into a pouch. They rounded a corner, and another, and then the scene came into view as frigid air bit into their lungs and exposed skin.
The trio skidded to a halt in the near darkness and Hawkwind could barely see what was going on, just the shapes of the creatures before her in the trickle of Sunstone light that escaped from the cave. Starbright was bleeding onto the floor from where the talis had her in its jaws, but her claws were sunk into whatever bit of it she could reach, and her face was tightly shut against seeing it. It was thrashing, but more and more slowly. Hawkwind lunged forward and sunk her claws into it, too, but they didn’t go in easily. Frost and then ice was condensing on its body, and it slowed, and slowed, until it keeled over, taking Starbright with it onto the floor slick with ice.
“It’s frozen,” Hawkwind called out, and Rocksky pulled out her glow-stone just in time for Hawkwind to watch as Starbright froze even its eyeballs solid.
The coating of ice hid enough of its scale patterns that Hawkwind wasn’t hypnotized. Her work finished, Starbright relaxed and released her hold on the beast. Then she cried out, and Hawkwind hurried to try to pry the frozen creature’s jaws off of her. Rocksky leapt forward to help, too.
“That was the last talis,” the commander said over her shoulder, to her scout. “Go find Rainsoft and Thornwing. They’ll be in these caves somewhere.”
Rocksky handed the other griffin the glow-stone. One of the older young griffins jumped out of the hiding cave and gestured, “I’ll go with you, for protection.”
“He says he’s going with you,” Hawkwind translated.
No one argued, and the scout and the volunteer dashed away.
“Uncover the Sunstone,” Hawkwind commanded, and in a moment light poured from the cave mouth.
They got the frozen jaws off from around Starbright’s chest and shoulder. She was bleeding, but not so badly that Hawkwind thought her life was in danger, except for the venom that must have been in her. The four human children piled out of the cave and ran to crouch by Starbright. They fastened their little hands over the bleeding punctures as the young mage shuddered and groaned.
“Joy,” Hawkwind called, and her other Linemember stepped forward. “Your mother is alive,” she said. “Go back to the cave where we rested, and then down the tunnel we came from before that. You will find the others and Thornfire. Tell them what happened. Tell them that Starbright is hurt.”
“I will,” Joy signed back.
Now Hawkwind began to hear the calls of griffin voices echoing through the tunnels. Soon enough the scout, the volunteer, Thornwing, and Rainsoft arrived at the hiding cave.
“The last talis,” Thornwing sighed. “It’s frozen?”
“Starbright did it,” Hawkwind explained, “but she got bit.”
Hawkwind, with Thornwing and Rocksky—Rainsoft stood watch—tended to Starbright as well as they could until Thornfire came running down the tunnel to them, with another of Rocksky’s scouts: Skymist.
Hawkwind was finally able to step away and collapse as Rocksky and her scouts stood and gave more energy to Thornfire, enough that he could ensure that Starbright would live. When he was done, he, too, fell to the ground beside his daughter-apprentice, curling himself protectively around her. Hawkwind closed her eyes and the world went dark.