Crosswinds: Gryphon Down

“Tell me where the gryphon is. Now!” she shouted out. Her breath started to grow heavy. Each swing, each thrust dug into heavy flesh… it took a toll on Juliette that wasn’t exclusively physical.

Crosswinds: Gryphon Down

By Penny


Despite its ornate façade, gryphon riding has always been one of the most common causes of deaths in the Tarithian army. Those brave, ignorant or desperate enough to take up such an activity often meet a grisly end, falling from hundreds of feet in the air without the need for enemy intervention. It had become a running joke among the Tarithian army: “Defeating a Tarithian footman requires a blade, a horseman a spear, but with a gryphon rider, you only need one good eye to watch the show.”

Of course, the subjects of such crude and morbid humor have not been blind to the dangers of their profession; gryphons have been fitted with equipment so their riders are firmly seated upon them, and the riders are extensively trained to avoid accidents. These measures kept overzealous riders from doing all sorts of tricks and twirls that might otherwise become the last bit of theatre in their lives.

However, as with all things human, there are always certain outliers.

Above Tarith’s forests flew a squadron of gryphon riders, the courier bags on their hips full of written orders for the officers on the front lines. Everyone was shrouded in anxious anticipation; as the war with the Krygons dragged on, horror stories from the front lines started to trickle back home. Bands of akor’mari, branded as killers and savages, stalked the night, their gray skin blending into the shadows, their red eyes gleaming in the dark, their hair as pale as the First Daughter moon – save for the strands drenched in the blood of Tarithian soldiers.

But right now, for better or worse, these boogeymen were the least of the riders’ concerns. One was a woman, whose frame was too small for the large gryphon she was riding on. Her feet couldn’t even reach where the stirrups were supposed to be, but even if they could, her gryphon was fitted with none, anyway. All it wore was a saddle, reins and body armor. The sight unnerved everyone; lack of proper flying gear was usually a death sentence, but this woman was an outlier, thriving in the skies far more than any of the riders.

“Hey, Juliette…” one of them called out to her. “Aren’t you scared of ending up being another one of the army’s safety stories? You’re barely wearing any gear at all!”

“Huh!” Juliette scoffed. “We’ve been over this again and again. If I was going to end up like that, it would’ve happened already, but I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“Still…!

The woman groaned. “First, that damn army officer, then the army, and now you…” She patted her gryphon on the head. Then, she quickly straightened her back, tightly holding onto the reins. “If telling you won’t work, I’ll just have to show you. Charlie, get ready!”

“Hey, stop that!” another, older rider shouted. He was flying behind the rest of the group, and just a little bit above them: the ideal position for any commanding officer. “Juliette and Charlie have been riding together for as long as I can remember. She’s the best rider I know, and you don’t have to worry about her falling off.” Then the commander sighed, furrowing his eyebrows at Juliette. “And you… don’t risk your life just to prove a point,” he scolded her. “You’ll have plenty of time to do that once we’re at the front. Focus on staying alive until then.”

“Yes, sir…” Juliette’s spirits fell at the mention of the front lines. “You’ve been there before, haven’t you, sir?”

Every other rider turned towards the commander, who let out another sigh. “You’re going to ask me what it’s like, aren’t you?”

Juliette glanced away. I’ve been rumbled. “Well… er… yes.” She wore a nervous smile on her face. “What is it like, sir?”

The commander looked at their faces, at the nervous, excited, prideful expressions written all over them. “You’ll all be okay,” he said. “Just remember your training, keep a clear head, and trust the person next to you.”

The riders looked at each other in silence, a small air of relief flying with the wind. But Juliette kept her eyes fixed on the commander, a sly, yet blank expression on her face.  “So, what is it like? You’re not answering the question, sir.”

“Oh, bugger off,” the commander snapped, to the snickering of the squadron. Then he looked ahead, furrowing his eyebrows again. “Everyone, look alive! There’s smoke rising in the distance.”

Juliette and the riders turned towards the smoke. It came from a clearing that they were going to pass soon.

“Smoke?” one of the riders said. “Smokes from campfires don’t go up that high, do they?”

“That’s not it,” Juliette said. “Someone must have set something on fire.”

“But we shouldn’t be at the front lines yet. We’re supposed to stop at a village, rest there for tonight, then make it there tomorrow… right?”

“Hm… We must have read the map wrong somehow,” the commander said. Juliette turned to look at him; he was wiping the sweat building up on his brow. 

She wondered if they had already arrived at or gotten past the front lines without realizing it. Assuming that you didn’t die by falling off, navigating on a gryphon was surprisingly difficult, and potentially fatal miscalculations like this were common.

“Commander, your orders?” Juliette broke into his ruminations.

He gave her a glance and a nod, then turned to address the rest of the riders. “We’ll investigate the fire and see what it is. If there’s anyone there that won’t throw anything at us, we’ll ask around for directions, try to get our bearings. Stay alert, and don’t get caught by surprise. Remember what I told you about the front lines, and you’ll be okay.”

“Yes, sir!”

The gryphon riders flew towards the smoke, speaking very little on the way. The gryphons flapped their wings as the wind breezed past the riders, the noise breaking through the tense silence.

When the riders came closer to the village, they realized that the tall column of smoke was actually several. They looked down at what was causing it and were greeted by an ugly viewing. Juliette had a grim look on her face. “Commander, it turns out we’re not lost,” she said. “This is the village we were supposed to stop at, but it’s on fire!”

From their vantage point, they could see the shadows of what seemed to be bodies lying on the ground, with more people running through the streets, presumably trying to put out the fires. Some seemed to be fighting one another. It was hard to tell at their distance.

“We’ll lower ourselves down,” the commander said. “Try to help these people out, but until we have a full picture on what’s going on, don’t let your guard down. Move out.”

The riders circled above the village, slowly lowering themselves down. Some kept their eyes locked on the village; some watched the tree line surrounding it. Landing was when gryphon riders were at their most vulnerable. Their gryphons were slow and consequently defenseless.

The closer they got, the more intense the heat grew. Some of them coughed and struggled to breathe. They got a closer look at the horrid wreckage all around them: ruined and burning buildings, charred and half-burnt corpses scattered throughout the streets or buried beneath what seemed to be a sea of rubble.

The riders looked on in horror. “How could… anyone do something like this…?” Juliette said.

The commander was the only one to maintain his composure. “Everyone, get yourselves together,” he told the riders, snapping them out of their shock. “Don’t lose sight of why we’re here.”

Suddenly, a volley of bolts whizzed past the riders. Two of the riders fell off their gryphons, slumping to the ground.

Akor’mari emerged from the tree line and their hiding spots within the village, wielding crossbows of all sorts of calibers. They looked just as the rumors said: gray skin, pale hair, yet they appeared more human-like than Juliette had expected. Unlike the near-identical boogeymen the stories made them out to be, there were a variety of hair colors, skin tones, and body types among the Krygon ‘mari.

“Krygons!” the commander shouted. “Everyone, draw your bows and get some distance. Juliette, cover us!”

“Y-yes, sir!” Juliette held onto the reins with one hand and drew her longsword with the other. She eyed the Krygons, steeling herself. If it means saving the village, don’t hesitate to get your hands dirty! “Charlie, get us up on that rooftop!”

With a roar, her gryphon sped towards the nearest roof, landing on it. Juliette eyed the Krygons, who were loading their crossbows with more bolts. 

“There!” She pointed at them, and the gryphon leapt off the roof. It dove towards the commanding Krygon officer at breakneck speed. Juliette’s chest screamed at her, seeing the sheer amount of akor’mari she was facing. “Now!” she shouted. 

Charlie swept up into the air just as a hail of arrows tore through their last position.

Juliette laughed, more out of relief than triumph. “Good girl.” She patted the beast on the back. “Now charge!”

With another roar, Charlie dove and crashed into the Krygons, knocking most of them over and staggering the rest. Juliette jumped off from the saddle, blade in hand.

Two akor’mari were the first to recover; they drew their blades and charged at her. Charlie jumped on the first ‘mar. After a brief struggle, Charlie’s talons found the gaps in the ‘mar’s armor, and he screamed in pain.

The other ‘mar swung at Juliette, but the rider anticipated his move. She raised her blade, letting the mar’s attack crash and slide past her blade, then she struck the akor’mar square in the face with her pommel. He fell flat on the ground, groaning as he held his bleeding nose. Juliette brought her blade down on the akor’mar, digging deep into his skin. It felt so heavy yet… so soft. The sensation made her sick.

The two leapt on the rest of the akor’mari, fighting with perfect synergy. They were man and beast, as different as they could be, and yet they fought as if they were two halves of the same blade.

As they were fighting, arrows started to rain down from the sky, dropping more of the Krygons around them.  “We’ve gained enough altitude,” the commander shouted, surrounded by the riders, wielding longbows and shooting down on the akor’mari. “We’ll cover you, Juliette, now get over here!”

“Y-Yes, sir!” 

Juliette looked at her own two hands, trembling and stained with blood, her palms filled with small marks and scratches from gripping her blade too tightly. When she slightly loosened her grip, her hand started to shake and tremble.

This was her first brush with combat.

Suddenly, she felt a warm sensation against her back. Charlie brushed its head against Juliette, beckoning the rider to withdraw with the others.

“Ah, right…” Juliette climbed up on her gryphon, a small smile on her face. “Thanks, Charlie. Now, get us out of here—”

“Juliette, watch out!”

She felt a searing, burning pain in her back. 

Then, she felt herself getting light-headed. She started losing her balance, and she fell off her gryphon. 

“H-Huh…? What’s…?”

She crashed against the ground. A dull pain flowed through her body, but the pain in her back continued to burn and scream at her. She had been shot through her armor.

Charlie roared and screeched, throwing itself at the Krygon soldier. Juliette rolled on the ground, facing the fight. She told her body to get up, but it grew heavier with each passing moment. It didn’t even feel like her body was hers anymore.

Akor’mari threw ropes and nets over Charlie, who fought and struggled with the ferocity of a cornered predator. Wounded and dying akor’mari lay all around the struggling gryphon, moaning and crying.

As Charlie violently clawed and chewed at the nets tightening around it, Juliette’s vision faded, and she lost consciousness.

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