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.

That night, she thought she’d be dead, but instead, she found herself dreaming.

She dreamt of her home in Tarith; she was standing in its busy courtyard.

It was the day Marla had died. She’d come down with a terrible illness, and even nobility found themselves hard-pressed to afford medicine, with how rare a commodity it’d become during the war. Over months, Juliette watched Marla rot away and slowly die… until it was all over.

On that day, Juliette decided to walk around the courtyard. She tended to the many animals that Marla had adopted during her lifetime: birds, frogs, snakes, chickens, dogs, cats… All of them Marla had come across abandoned in one way or another.

Where in Talmenor does Marla find all these abandoned animals?

Whenever she and Marla had gone out to tend to the animals, things had always been in disarray. Throughout the years, they had perfected a system to make sure each animal stayed in their own area, but noise complaints, run-aways and other incidents happened often.

Just today, though, the courtyard was completely quiet, as if they had felt what Juliette was feeling: that quiet, suffocating, somber weight on her chest. The entire house was mourning in its newfound emptiness.

She fed and bathed the animals, cleaned up their dens and shelters, then left them alone after that.

Juliette entered the manor to rest. It was large and spacious, donned with all sorts of furniture and heraldry.

It killed her to feel how empty and quiet it felt.

As she bathed herself, Juliette’s mind lingered on the costs of taking care of all those animals. When prices continued to rise among the markets, would she be able to keep them all? How many would she have to sell, to give away, in order to stay afloat?

How much more of her will I have to lose?

How much more…

“How… how much…”

Juliette felt a hand on her shoulder. She quickly sat up, her hand reaching to draw a blade that was no longer on her waist.

“Calm down, Juliette,” an akor’mar told her. Juliette recognized him as the leader of the group: the one she had confronted before falling unconscious. “If we wanted to hurt you, we would have already done so.”

Juliette took a moment to take stock of her situation. She was in one of the tents in the Krygon camp. Besides her bedroll and a lamp, there seemed to be nothing else in it. 

I’m their prisoner.

Her heart raced. She stood up from the bedroll. 

I’m… their prisoner. 

She’d heard stories about what Krygons did to the Tarithian soldiers they captured. In the panicked haze that was her mind, she recalled one key detail: the luckiest ones were tortured and killed on the spot.

“How are you feeling?” the akor’mar asked.

Juliette haphazardly took up a fighting stance. “What do you want from me?”

The akor’mar didn’t seem alarmed by her stance at all. He remained calm, standing a short distance away from her. If anything, he looked unimpressed. “I wanted to discuss what happened yesterday,” he said. “I told you we’d tell you where the gryphon is, if you leave us alone.”

Juliette furrowed her eyebrows. “Why would I trust you?” she said. “For all I know, this could be some sick precursor to killing me… or you’ll bring me to a Krygon city only to turn me over to the authorities.”

The akor’mar’s eyes slightly dropped.

The gryphon rider scoffed at him. “Don’t think I haven’t heard the stories,” she said. “I know what your kind does to those they capture alive. If this is some sick joke, I’ll attack. I’ll really force you to cut me down.”

The akor’mar sighed. “There’s no need for that,” he said. “I’ll explain everything right now.”

Juliette scowled. “Go on, then,” she said. “Explain.”

“Me and the lot outside… We’re deserters.”

“D… Deserters?”

“Yes. We used to be soldiers in Krygon’s army. We were confident; we believed we could win a swift victory,” he said, “but the war dragged on, we died in droves, and we couldn’t take it anymore. During the fighting, we spotted an opening to escape, and we took it, taking ourselves into Tarithian lands.”

The akor’mar eyed Juliette.

“We’re not wasteful,” he said. “If we wanted to kill you, we would have done so already. Seeing that we decided it was worth letting you live, the least you can do is give us the benefit of the doubt.”

Juliette considered her options but maintained her stance.

He sighed. “If you manage to kill me right now, what then? I’m the only one allowing you to live,” he said. “Do you think they’ll just let you walk away scot-free?”

There was a beat of silence.

She huffed. “Fine.” She said, “I guess this does mean you can’t hand me over either, since you’ll implicate yourself as a deserter.”

“Exactly.”

“So, why do you want to help me, then?”

“Well… that’s…” It seemed like the akor’mar was at a loss for words, stammering and stuttering through his thoughts.

Juliette raised an eyebrow. “Because…?”

“…”

“It seems like you’re at the end of your wits. Did you run out of material for your cover story?”

“I already said that I’m not here to hurt or deceive you! Why do you find it so hard to believe me?”

“Well, I wonder why, akor’mar!”

He sighed. “Fine. You don’t have to believe us right now. You’ve only just woken up, after all,” he said, standing up and dusting off his clothes. “Take some time to think about it first. Then, you can hear me out.”

Before he left, he had one last thing to say. “Oh, one last thing; you keep calling me ‘akor’mar.’”

Juliette raised an eyebrow at that.

“My actual name is Areum,” he said. Areum then left the tent, leaving Juliette to her own thoughts.


What in the world is he thinking? Why would I believe that he’d possibly want to help me?

A part of Juliette doubted that they were deserters, but there was no denying that these Krygons were in Tarith. She entertained the thought of leaving the tent to investigate further, but she feared being attacked as soon as she was caught merely loitering around after killing some of their comrades in a night ambush.

After a short argument with herself, she settled that waiting here could also get her killed. Actually, any decision she made could get her killed. So, instead of idling around, the least she could do was take a bit of initiative.

So, she took a deep breath and brushed aside the sheets, leaving the tent.

Once she was outside, she gazed at the Krygon camp. Judging from how high up the sun was, Juliette thought that it must have been some time around midday. The camp was winding down from its morning buzz of activities, and the Krygon deserters were hard at work with all sorts of labor: mostly cooking, maintaining weapons and armor, but also organizing all sorts of hauls and loot. She also eyed small mounds of dirt at the far side of the camp: the final resting places for the lives she had taken last night.

As Juliette walked around, she could feel the suspicious and scornful gazes from the akor’mari, who felt no need to hide their disdain for the person who had attacked them. Juliette couldn’t help but shudder at the hostile aura, but she told herself that she didn’t regret her actions.

I did it for Charlie… for the villages they laid to waste in their path…

And yet they spared her. Specifically, Areum did, and against their own wishes and wills, they trusted him and followed his decision. Would she have offered them the same mercy, had their roles been reversed?

Before she became further lost in her thoughts, she heard Areum’s voice from behind her. “I didn’t think you’d actually come out of your tent.”

Juliette turned to look at him, a small frown on her face. “I didn’t think I had anything to lose.”

“That much is true,” he said. “So, what do you think?”

“Well… they don’t like me.”

“I wonder why, human.”

Juliette could say nothing to that, so she just looked down on the ground.

“Come with me.” Areum walked through the camp, passing through many of the tents, campfires and stations that the Krygons had set up for themselves. Juliette followed closely behind him. As they walked past groups of akor’mari, all glaring at her and brandishing their weapons… she got the feeling that Areum’s presence was the only thing stopping them from killing her on the spot.

Areum led her outside of the camp, to a place in the forest away the eyes and ears of his fellow deserters. “Now that we’re here, I’d like to talk about your gryphon. Charlie, wasn’t it?”

“Right.”

“I presume Charlie is being taken across the front lines, to the nearest city in Krygon. There, it’ll be sold in its underground markets. I assume it will go to a noble family, one that likes to collect exotic animals, maybe.”

“Tch.” Hearing him speak so nonchalantly about selling off her gryphon ticked her off, but she kept it to herself. Mostly. “Why are you telling me this?”

“We had a deal, remember?” Areum said, crossing his arms and leaning against a tree. “If you want, I’ll even take you there.”

“Huh? What?” Juliette resisted the urge to laugh. “Is this some joke to you? It’s not funny. Why on Talmenor would I even believe that?”

Areum was silent as he looked at her, his expression showing no sign of deceit whatsoever. “If you don’t want to take it, then run away from here,” he told her. “I’ll tell the rest I killed you, and that’ll be that.”

Juliette felt bewildered by the look he gave her. Her initial disbelief died down as she started to consider the possibility that he was the real deal. “Areum… Why would you make me this offer?” she asked.

Areum sighed. “The day I ran away from the Krygon army… the fighting was horrible, but that was nothing new to me anymore,” he said. “I was good at it: killing and fighting. Even when I was a child, people would say that I handled weapons scarily well.”

“I asked you why you were helping me. I didn’t ask for your life story.”

“Shut up. You’re my prisoner, so you get to listen to whatever I say.” Areum squinted at her. “Anyway, I always felt that I was at home in the Krygon army for that reason, but… on that day, in the midst of the fighting, I had cornered a Tarithian soldier. I knocked his weapon out of his hands and struck him to the ground.

“Before I dealt the final blow, I caught a glimpse of his eyes. They seemed… resigned to his fate, but wistful: as if he’d lost something or someone dear to him.” He said, “I don’t know what that loss would’ve been for him, but… the part of my mind that liked killing seemed to break apart after that. I ran away, and I met up with the others you’ve seen in this camp. We all decided to cross the border into Tarith instead of heading back to Krygon.”

“Why? And if you disliked killing that much, why would you raid the villages?”

“It’s…” Areum looked at the ground, losing his usual air of firm confidence. “It’s not something I’m proud of, but the reason why we decided to risk heading into Tarithian territory was that it was easier.”

“Easier?”

“I’m sure it’s no different here, but deserters aren’t treated kindly in Krygon,” he explained. “If we stayed there, we’d have to steal from our own families, fight our own comrade-in-arms and face betrayal from our own kin. We’d never know who to trust, and for how long they could be trusted. In that respect, being in Tarith, where everyone’s an enemy, is far easier to live with.”

Juliette’s expression softened a bit upon hearing Areum’s story. She’d never been to the front lines, only heard stories about it, but her experiences with fighting and killing… 

She held her trembling hands together, gradually steadying them.

“When I saw you last night, on your last legs, killing you felt like the natural choice,” Areum continued, “but I saw the look in your eyes… and it looked just like the boy I had killed that day. I thought then that… if I had killed you, I would have… run away for nothing.

“If… if anyone you knew was hurt in those raids, I’m sorry. I know it wouldn’t mean anything, but I really am sorry,” he said. “It doesn’t excuse anything, but we’re just trying to survive.”

Juliette stayed silent. Despite the circumstances, Areum seemed to be genuine in his words. It would also explain why they were so far behind Tarithian lines. It would also mean that… the reason why she was still alive was an act of mercy: nothing more, nothing less.

Still, she found it hard to believe, and she was perceptive enough to notice that he didn’t answer her question. He seemed genuine, but he was hiding something.

After a moment of silence, Areum spoke again. “It seems selfish, doesn’t it?” he said. “But, thanks to that selfish desire, you’re alive, and now I’m your best shot at finding your gryphon. What do you say?”

“…fine.” She said, “I’ll take the deal. How do I get to this Krygon city you speak of?”

“Well… I have a few underground connections in Tarith,” Areum said. “In exchange for payment, they could smuggle you across the border. Tell them I sent you; they’ll understand. After that, you can travel to the city where your gryphon likely is, Gymalg G’mai. It’s not far from the front lines, so it shouldn’t take too long to get there. Once you’re in the city, you’ll have to explore the underground market for leads. You can find some in the sewers. A gryphon is considered a prized possession in Krygon, so nobles with their toes dipped in the underworld will offer high prices for one.”

Juliette stared at Areum, a bit stunned. “You’re… certainly knowledgeable about this,” she said. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

“Since last night,” he said. “Your biggest hurdle will be the city. When someone unknown starts poking around in the Krygon underworld, they tend to draw suspicion. You’ll have to establish yourself somehow.”

“Well, I suppose we can cross that bridge when we get there,” Juliette said, after a moment of thought. “We have to worry about getting to Gymalg G’mai first.”

“We?” Areum raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, we,” Juliette said. “Take me there.”

“Why?”

“You wanted to help me,” she said. “How will I know you’re telling the truth? And I’ll be needing a guide when I’m in Krygon.”

“That’s… I don’t understand.” He just sort of looked at her with a confused expression on his face.

“I know you’re not telling me everything.” Juliette told him, meeting his gaze. “To be honest, you… confuse me. You don’t seem to be lying to me, but you’re hiding something from me. You seem to want to help me, but you also seem like you don’t want to help me. But I do know one thing about you for sure.”

 Areum huffed. “And that is?”

“You’re a man of your word.” She said, “You told me you wouldn’t have anyone harm me, and here I am. Now, you’re telling me a way I can get my gryphon back. You offered it as a ‘deal’, but it’s skewed towards my favor. You just want to help, don’t you?”

Areum reeled back a bit, visibly irked at being found out like that. 

“You’re just really obvious,” Juliette said, a small smirk on her face. “If that’s the case, why not just come with me? I could use the insurance. If you really want to help, then it’s the least you could do, right?”

Areum considered it for a moment, then he nodded. “Alright, fine. You got me,” he said. “I’ll come with you.”

“Thank you, Areum,” she said. “I look forward to your guidance.”

And if it ever turns out you’re lying, I’ll kill you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.