© 2014 Elizabeth Munro all rights reserved
Master Sky crouches in the center of her Memphis sparring chamber. Her lion haunches and taloned forelimbs tense beneath her powerful wings. Shift-blackened eyes frame the hard curve of her hooked beak. As she lowers her head, a single, sharp claw draws in and digs a narrow channel through the dirt floor. Three hundred pounds of muscle, feather and death stare down the privileged few gathered to challenge her.
A feline growl strains from her feathered maw.
Cloud’s throat closes at the sight of her terrifying friend and mentor as she remembers to breathe. She forces a dry swallow and fills her lungs, trying to find calmness and slow her pounding heart though it continues to race. It’s an honour. Cloud clings to the thought but instinct screams danger almost loud enough to override her still exterior and she's sure everyone can hear the pounding in her ears.
“Third-years,” Hunter scans the semi-circle of students and settles his eyes on Cloud. “You will face our mentor, Master Sky. This is the first of three afternoons we will spend with her and focus on keeping our asses in one piece."
He adjusts his stance and ties on his scabbard and dulled training dagger. The surrounding students follow suit, unified by clicks and cinches in the dim light. As one of Sky’s most advanced students, the young gryphon earned offers from several eyries to serve in the guard. Cloud suspects he only remains in Sky’s Memphis Eyrie to torment her with his attention.
Hunter faces Sky as if he were made to take on the fully shifted gryphon. In a way, he is, since the infuriating jerk is her grandson.
Cloud keeps her eyes on him rather than let Sky’s battle form rattle her. The other students watch Sky, their soft growls amplified by the rounded stone ceiling high above. Cloud anticipated today’s lesson as much as anyone but once Sky shifted and her scent changed, apprehension ravaged her.
“When taking on a fully shifted gryphon, your priority is survival. All other goals are suicide.”
Hunter turns and smiles earning a couple of nervous snickers because he’s popular even when he isn’t funny. Although this exercise challenges their psychological strength, many third year students receive near fatal wounds from even the most experienced and restrained Master. It takes centuries before a gryphon can shift beyond mere tail and wings on their human form into a fully-shifted beast armed with talon and claw and protected by a thick muscled body covered in feathers and fur.
Cloud feels Sky's pure black eyes focus on her though the absence of surrounding whites offers no clue as to where Sky looks. Sweat beads on her crawling skin, moistening her homespun clothes. Even thicker garments offer little protection from the chamber's chill.
“Master Sky will slash. She will growl. She will do everything but kill you.
“And she does not promise you won’t be hurt.”
His eyes settle on Cloud again and he winks, appearing oblivious to Sky who makes no sound as she circles around behind him.
Hunter's stupid sideways grin disarms her every time.
For a moment, she lets her mental guard down and smiles in return maybe because he looks so much like his brother. But he isn’t Soar. That jerk hasn’t spoken a word to her in three years. Didn’t even say good-bye when she left for Sky’s mountain.
Hunter sidesteps, just in time to disappear into Sky’s shadow. The soundless predator pounces and consumes him in a blur of muscle and feathers.
Bloodlust ripples through the students, drawing them toward Hunter and Sky in the center sparring ring. Cloud inches away and eyes the exit then she catches sight of jerk number two.
Soar stands on one of the upper shelves above the tunnel, arms crossed, and watches his youngest sibling wriggle out from beneath Sky’s massive body. Hunter jams his boots into her abdomen and shouts into the darkness as he pushes the giant gryphon off balance. Sky gracefully braces herself with her wings and keeps her beak out of the dirt but can’t use her sharp talons on him with them sunk into ground. Hunter twists up onto his feet and Sky faces him head on.
Hunter’s lips snap back exposing teeth in threat then straighten in concentration. Sky doesn't give him time to move more than a foot. The beast's massive haunches twitch her forward and she pivots and stabs a clawed hind leg to his throat in a flash of sprayed dirt and filtered light that shouldn't be possible for something so large.
“Hunter...” Cloud breathes and her free hand moves to her own neck. The dirt beneath grabs at her feet and she stumbles on rubbery knees. She's taken on every challenge thrown at her but this one has nothing to do with her physical training. Sick fear, a stranger in her gut, moves in and begins to settle throughout her body.
The few glimpses she gets of Hunter show him not only embraced in Sky’s talons but using his arms and legs to stay as close to her as he can. If she gets a hind foot between them she could rip him in half. Screeches and dust outside the sparring ring must be as intense within it as the chamber has filled with both.
Hunter's thick, pained voice cries out as the pair rolls then he digs his wooden dagger under Sky’s massive wing. She shrieks, leans in Hunter’s direction and drops the wing, giving him the opportunity to land a well-placed boot on her throat. The restrained blow shouldn't move her jaw but Sky reacts as if he’d put all his force behind it. Her clawed hind legs come up in defense and flick him away.
Hunter’s head snaps back into the soft dirt before he can tuck it sideways and summersault over backwards. He’s as smooth as Soar even when thrown and comes up in a crouch with his dagger drawn and his eyes on his target.
The three scratches marking his outer obliques aren't deep enough to be dangerous but each leaves a crimson stain on the waistband of his trousers.
Cloud doesn’t realize she clutches her own scarred side until she feels the ridges of thickened skin through her tunic.
On the terrace above, Soar ignores her and watches Sky shake her feathers and prepare for her next student. His hands tighten around his biceps in response to Cloud's stare.
She scans the other shelves for her adopted sire, Master Talon, in the hopes he’s come along but Soar is alone.
“Juniper,” Hunter shouts as he stands and points at Sky. “Cloud.”
She glares to see what the heck he wants but he tilts his head toward the center of the room and Sky in the main sparring ring.
Not yet, she moans.
Memories flow in dark currents around Cloud's weak knees. A small den lit by a fire. The warmth of home and family soothes her spirit. A female with dark hair lies prone before her. Her splayed wings bear the same unremarkable brown as Cloud's own feathers. A word reveals itself in Cloud's head: Dame. Dark feathered forms snuff out the fire then yield to a black, fully shifted gryphon pacing the tunnel outside the darkening den, its talons dripping blood. That female's black wings and fur were rare and she stares at the striding beast. The scent of an aggravated, fully shifted gryphon will never be forgotten and her nose twinges.
"Cloud," Hunter motions her forward.
Growing dust swallows the silver wall lights as she leaves the relative safety of the chamber's perimeter. Grit coats her throat and sticks in the layer of sweat between her palm and the handle of her small, wooden dagger.
Juniper’s cry gets Cloud’s attention and she whirls, ready to flee whatever danger she’s found but the female rolls to her feet a dozen paces from Sky. Juniper allows a grin as she stalks forward, enjoying the thrill of battle. Cloud doesn't feel the lust for combat, only the nearness of death risen from the depths of her past. She embraced every task put to her, many in this very room, pushing herself to master every weapon and face every opponent no matter how obvious the mismatch.
The overwhelming power of bloodlust avoids her and the urge to flee chokes her veins and thoughts with equal amounts of ferocity. Her relief that Juniper walked away without injury isn't enough to replace her own dread she's next.
Sky dips her chin and prowls away, inviting Cloud forward.
She’s just a naked gryphon, Cloud’s unsure inner voice states. Naked? Definitely. Sky’s human hands folded her tunic and trousers, leaving them in a neat pile. The same gentle hands set broken bones and bound wounds as her mouth once praised and encouraged. Now her talons flex beneath a foot-long curved beak, sharp enough to tear off a limb.
“Master,” Cloud acknowledges but the tremor in her belly shakes the syllables through her lips.
Blood rushes her ears, spreading numbness to her mouth and she can't speak another word. Her words fade to a faint click in her throat. As Cloud steps into the invisible barrier marking the sparring ring no amount of heaving can pull sufficient oxygen into her lungs.
“Take position,” Hunter’s distant voice intrudes and Cloud complies. A single step spreads her feet but she doesn’t really feel the handle of the wooden dagger as she pulls it from her thigh.
Sky rears up, a move she didn’t make with Hunter, and releases a terrifying screech. With her wings spread in threat, she brandishes her claws and takes a step forward as brilliant blue sparks flare across her large feathers.
The jolt of Cloud’s dagger landing on her own foot causes her to cry out, unaware she’d even dropped it and she slaps her hands to her ears to keep the echoes away. Blue sparks in Sky’s wings flourish then fade and Cloud perceives the faint silver wall lights through the shadows around her as flickering warm yellow fire.
The thick dry musk of fully-shifted gryphon permeates her senses.
She no longer sees Sky or the chamber. The beautiful young dark-haired female lies dead, close enough to the fire to make the deep gold highlights in her hair shimmer. One year old Cloud holds back tears and clings to her dame. Fingers trace along flight feathers as she tries to rub away the deep bruises on her neck. No blood marks her body or pools on the floor.
The murderer's obsidian eyes flicker in the fire light. He nods to the black winged gryphon and it retreats down the tunnel as he draws a knife and turns on Cloud.
"No," Cloud drops her hands.
She runs from Sky and the chamber, terrified by the echoes of her pounding feet and the finality of death.
Soar grabs the stone terrace wall to keep from falling as Cloud's cries pierce his body. He regains his composure as the training continues below and hopes no one noticed him flinch while lit by Sky's brilliant blue threat display. He needs to follow, to release Cloud's soft, red hair from its knot and tangle his fingers in it.
He keeps a palm on the wall to stop himself. The last thing Cloud needs is to see him, the gryphon who dumped her cold the day she was accepted into Memphis. Three years without her hardened his heart.
What did you expect? Soar chides himself. You had her then you shut her out.
The fighting in the room below seems to go on for hours as Soar waits to set his plan in motion.
“Hey, brother,” Hunter approaches through the tunnel leading up to the ledge. Soar stuffs his hands in his pockets before his youngest sibling can see the whitening knuckles. “We a go?”
“Yeah,” Soar agrees. A go it is. If his cruelty three years earlier didn’t count as hurting her then Soar’s next move certainly will and he’s an asshole for being here to pick up the pieces. Picking them up and using them.
“Look, Soar,” Hunter bows then holds his chin up in submission. “You sure? I mean it isn’t too late for me to stop this.”
“Mm,” Soar grunts with a shake of his head. Cloud’s breakdown still chills him though indulging in conversation with his brother restores some warmth. “Things good back home?”
“Two births in the eyrie this year. You’d think our dame bore them herself she’s so proud.”
Soar laughs. Most females find a way to avoid going into season after a birth or two but their dame still wears out their sire every few years. Soar and Hunter’s dame rules their birth eyrie in Oregon and is the sibling of Sire Lev, Cloud’s adopted grand-sire.
“And she says next time you take off for your male dereliction of duty to come home and see her.”
Of course she would. Males disappear for a few months every year to listen to the Earth, grow their treasure hordes and hunt. Females think it’s laziness. Males are as solitary by nature as females are communal, even those who have sworn service to an eyrie like Soar has. And like Cloud hopes to although the coming hours will see that future taken from her.
“What happened to Cloud in there?” Soar asks though he knows damned well what it was.
“Beats me,” Hunter shrugs then his chin drops. “You know Sky. She makes sure everyone loses their shit real good at least once.”
Soar holds his tongue. While training in Memphis feels like a group thing, it’s very personalized and Sky shows each gryphon in her charge exactly what their limits are.
What the gryphon does with the information, mastery or failure, is entirely up to them.
“Mine was a couple of years ago,” Hunter goes on and Soar closes his eyes. “It was water-”
“Please,” Soar holds up a hand to keep the words away. He wasn't in Oregon when Hunter and his twin snuck out. It was night and somehow landed in the lake. Wind, the smaller of the two, had the presence of mind to draw her wings in and get them to shore but not before Hunter nearly drowned her in panic. The pair were eight and both had taken wing for the first time only a year before.
“Water,” Hunter swallows and Soar drops his head back, a solid thud against the stone wall. “A night exercise, dark... water.”
“Anyway,” Hunter clears his throat. “The gryphon who’s going to get her expelled is so mad his sire is sending a delegation to make sure our grand-dame handles things prop-”
“I don’t want to know,” Soar warns. Master Sky doesn’t need help doing things properly but politics is politics and she’ll have to put up with the so-called delegation. “And you’re better off not knowing why.”
“Right, right,” Hunter answers as he jumps at Soar, gets him in a headlock and knocks him over. In a matter of seconds, Soar has his younger brother face down on the stone floor.
“You got a long way to go,” Soar rolls off as the two catch their breath. “Make it happen, Hunter, and come to her den in an hour.
“Be pissed I’m there.”