A Shot in the Dark
Tales from the Gryphon Saga
By L.E. Horn
Copyright © 2016 L.E. Horn
All Art Copyright © 2016 L.E. Glowacki
2016 Sherrington Publishing
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher–or, in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency–is an infringement of the copyright law. All characters and character likenesses are the property of L.E. Horn and cannot be reproduced without the written consent of the author.
Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people or places are used fictitiously. The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in this novel are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to anything or anyone living (or dead) is unintentional.
[+ FREEFORM: Book One of the Gryphon Saga+]
SAR%KAN%BANE LEFT HER QUARTERS and headed for the path leading to the administrative heart of the camp. Her skin twitched as moisture dripped from the overhanging foliage. This world is full of life, but it is far too wet for my taste.
Ahead of her, a group of slaves worked on the path. Despite her approach, their eyes remained intent on the twisted roots crawling over the soil. They carried tanks strapped to their backs that piped green liquid to the rods in their hands. The bright fluid shot from the tips, and the roots bubbled and hissed as the acid burned through them. They wore threadbare and tattered clothing. In places, their skin showed through the fabric, and around their necks were bands of silver metal. Their movements were almost mechanical and their conversations brief and stilted.
As she drew close, Sar%kan%bane considered the vivid contrast between the slaves and the exuberant life flourishing around them. The trees soared into the sky, so covered in epiphytic foliage their trunks and branches were concealed. Sound and movement filled the jungle, evidence of a diverse and healthy ecosystem.
Beautiful, but also deadly, she thought, watching as the roots attacked by the green chemical seemed to writhe and pull away with an alien awareness as they burned. One slave cursed as a trailing tendril of vine attached itself to one arm. He wrenched himself free, but the vine struck out like a snake to rewind itself around his other arm. It did not retreat until he sprayed it with goo.
The slaves were a species commonly harvested by Sar%kan%bane’s people. Versatile, moderately intelligent, and plentiful on their home world, they were a vital part of the current initiative on this planet. Those relegated to vegetation control were not the finest example, but they were useful nonetheless.
When she caught up to them, the men stiffened and moved to one side. She was as tall as they, but her frame was much heavier and her gray-violet, scaly skin was very different from their pale, soft covering. They had flattened faces, instead of her protruding jaw lined with jagged teeth, and their eyes were small and white-rimmed, unlike her large ones that swirled with orange and red.
As she passed them, a flash of brilliant color drew her gaze up to where a flock of birdlike creatures swooped through the canopy. Her passage beyond where the men worked flushed a small green animal from the bush, it traveled skyward in a burst of frantic fluttering. Sar%kan%bane stopped to watch its futile bolt for freedom. Futile, as she was not the predator the animal should fear.
Sure enough, in response to the movement, there was a corresponding swirl of color within the trees. The flock she had spotted a moment ago swept back through the upper branches. By the time the small green animal realized its danger, it was far too late. The flying predators engulfed it in a frenzy of snapping jaws. A microsecond later, they vanished into the jungle. A solitary green feather floated in their wake.
Sar%kan%bane shrugged and marched along the path, emerging into a clearing featuring several large buildings. Constructed from sections of scuffed and dented metal, the structures were portable. More of her kind moved about, intent on their particular tasks.
It was no coincidence. Her people were called the Tlo%m, and they were at war. Unbeknownst to the majority of her population, they were fighting a war on two fronts. Sar%kan%bane was one of a select few that knew the truth. There were rebels in their midst.
DESPITE HER LOCATION IN the depths of the barracks, Sar%kan%bane heard the sounds of nocturnal creatures prowling the jungle. Careful planning ensured she was the only one on duty in the main communications office at this time of the night.
The nights are long and lonely, she thought, but a necessary evil if the rebellion’s plans are to reach fruition.
A soft beep intruded on the silence and she went into action, touching the comm attached over her ear and listening for a few moments before sending the message on its way with a quick tapping on her console board. Then she spent a considerable amount of time erasing any evidence of the incoming message. Even if someone discovered its existence, it could never be traced back to the senders on the Mothership.
The Tlo%m believed the mental gymnastics required for betrayal was long since genetically removed from their species.
That I am capable of this is a sign of how far we have devolved. One sign of many, Sar%kan%bane thought as she worked. We can only hope the rebellion’s efforts are successful.
The technician finished deleting any trace of the file and leaned back in her seat. The war was not going well for her people, but the efforts of the rebellion were progressing either. The war slogs on, draining us of resources. At the moment, the rebellion’s plans seem stalled. We have players in key places, but they are moving too slow. Many worry we cannot wait for things to proceed at a natural pace.
She stretched, trying to loosen the tight muscles along her spine. The rebellion’s leaders seem to believe what we need is a catalyst, something to get things moving. This latest initiative could accomplish the goal—but only if the Gryphon step up to play their part. So far, they have done little to help the rebellion’s efforts.
She shrugged herself free of her dark thoughts and scratched at a patch of dried scaly skin. Of course, better minds than mine are working on this. My job is to relay the messages and delete all signs they ever existed. Compared to what some others are doing, it is a simple task.
VIRRA SAT ON A LARGE cushion off to one side of the vast kitchen, sampling steaming tea from a cup designed for Gryphon mouths. Wilf swears by this recipe, but this is my second helping, and I am still wide awake. She sighed. I just cannot shut off my mind. There are too many things requiring that I be alert, too many creative solutions needed for life-and-death situations. She shifted on the cushion, folding her forelegs under her. No Gryphon shiev in memory has ever led her people through a war. There was no way to prepare for this. I do the best I can.
Her datapad beeped, and the mini-Gryphon pulled it out of the pocket strapped around her torso. The origin of the message made the white feathers of her crest stand on end. It is them. We have not heard from the rebellion for so long I thought the Tlo%m discovered it.
She read the note and the spikes along her backbone rose too. Restoring the datapad to the pocket, she sat for a time, thinking hard. Then she stood and absent-mindedly placed the cup on a table. Her heart pounded in rhythm with her thoughts.
There will be no sleep for me tonight. I must think.
She paced out of the Great Hall. Interlocked living vines hung across the kitchen exit. She stroked one small hand along the stems; they untangled themselves, parting to let her through. The big main doors to the Hall are shut at this time of night, but the smaller side exit, guarded by the vines, allowed restricted access to the communal kitchen.
The crisp, light breeze carried the scents of the grasslands into the valley. Virra paused, closed her eyes and turned her head into the wind. She let the cool air soothe her chaotic thoughts, frowning as a familiar scent drifted toward her. She followed it, occasionally stopping to reorient with nostrils flared wide.
“It is nice to see you have not lost all of your natural abilities,” said a voice laced with humor, drawing Virra’s attention to the darkness beneath an enormous tree. “You have spent so much time inside as of late that I assumed you did not want to get your dainty claws muddy.”
Virra shook her head, making her crest feathers rustle. Her keen eyesight could discern the form reclining in the shadows. She joined him, settling herself before dignifying him with an answer. “Like you have had time to parade around. Why are you here now? Did your herbal concoction not work for you?”
The mini-Gryphon snorted and shook his rather unkempt mane. “It would work if I had taken some. However, tonight I thought I would observe the occlusion of Tazac Two by its third moon.”
Virra glanced up to where the dense branches of the tree obscured the stars. “I see. Well, if you can tear yourself away from your studies, I need your advice.”
In answer, the mini-Gryph shifted closer to her, trailing his long tail across hers. He was her oldest and closest friend; there was no one with whom she would rather consult. “So what mysteries trouble you at this time of the night?” He cocked his head and clacked his beak tip. “Has the rebellion made contact?”
Virra was no longer amazed at Wilf’s ability to deduce her thoughts. After a few hundred years, he can read me like a datapad. “They have been in contact with an unusual request—they need our help.”
Wilf stiffened. “We are already engaged against the Tlo%m army. I am not sure what else . . .” His long ears flattened, disappearing into his mane. “Ah. I sense subterfuge is in the works. Not our strongest talent at the best of times.”
Virra nodded. “You are right. I think, however, we will have to rise to the occasion.” She sighed and told him what the rebellion was asking for.
Wilf’s eyes widened, and his mane stood on end. “Dangerous.”
“Do you have anyone in mind?”
Virra did not respond.
This time it was Wilf who sighed. “Of course. Why did I even ask?” He fell silent, and Virra could almost hear his thoughts. “I think I can provide a reasonable argument. What about using me instead? The Tlo%m will believe whatever we leak to them.”
“We cannot be sure. Since the war coordinator Tar%tosk%rask took over, their Intel improved dramatically. Your value to the war effort is not as well-known as my own.”
“We cannot afford to risk you for that reason.” Wilf lost his cool, objective tone. She could hear undertones of exasperation and alarm.
“You know you could step in for me here,” she said.
Wilf acted as her confidant in almost every major decision she made, although it wasn’t something broadly acknowledged. Only those few working close to her recognized his importance. Wilf did not present himself as a leader as he much preferred to remain in the background.
Wilf occupied a unique niche in the Gryphon hierarchy. Respected for his vast store of knowledge, most regarded him as an intellectual that kept apart from daily affairs. When the war began, he accompanied the children and teachers into hiding. Even then, his role remained undervalued. Virra sent him as their protector as well as to guide the activities of the retreat. She trusted him implicitly.
There are many kinds of warriors, she thought. Wilf’s has a small stature, but his intellect is mighty.
When the Tlo%m supplemented their war machine with slave fighters, Virra recalled Wilf to the valley. His study of alien species provided essential insight into the slaves themselves. The majority of her people would never guess the importance of his role as he helped guide Virra through this morally challenging war.
Virra waited. She had ultimate faith in the power of the brain currently hard at work, probing every possible permutation and combination. It did not take long.
Wilf clicked his beak tip, baring the teeth lining the jaw behind it. “All right. I agree, your decision is the only logical one, but I am not happy about it. We will be careful as to whom we choose to support you.”
Virra lowered her head, hoping to soothe her friend’s angst with the submissive gesture. “I was thinking Karn would be the best choice to lead this venture. Kesar is crucial to the war machine. Removing him might result in disruption with the frontline initiative. Karn inherited his father’s knack for strategy while offering the mental flexibility youth provides.”
Wilf nodded, but his flattened ears and fluffed mane indicated the plan irked him.
“If you have any better ideas, I am open to hearing them,” she added.
The mini-Gryph regarded her with narrowed eyes. “You know if I did, you would have heard about it already.” He stood and shook his entire body, raising a cloud of leaves and dust.
Without a word of reproach, Virra rose and brushed herself off. Wilf looked unhappy, and she reached out to place a hand on his shoulder. “It will work out. We will take every precaution.”
“We certainly will. I will be there to ensure it.”
“I will need you here,” Virra squeezed his shoulder. “We cannot leave our people without guidance.”
Wilf’s entire Gryphon body radiated his frustration even as his expression registered the logic of her request. “We will ask a lot of one young Gryphon,” he said between gritted teeth. “If he fails, I will be hard-pressed not to castrate him.”
Virra stifled a laugh as she linked her arm in his. They backed toward the Great Hall, her mind filled with the image of the little mini-Gryph trying to attack the nine-foot-tall son of the Gryphon war leader. It added some much-needed humor to the darkness of the night.
IT WAS DAWN BY the time Karn galloped into the Gryphon valley. The front lines of the war, which moved along the scrublands between the dense jungle and the open grasslands, were a long way from the valley he called home.
The long gallop felt good, stretching muscles adapted to cover ground at speed. With their big bodies and long legs, the Gryphon were creatures of the grasslands. In the open, they were swift and deadly foes to their enemies. The Gryphon’s size worked against them in closer quarters, and they had difficulty maneuvering in the dense, leafy confines of the jungle. The Tlo%m used this to their advantage by establishing their base of operations in the jungle. From there, they made repeated forays into the grasslands to engage the Gryphon.
Karn entered the valley alone, having left his best friend and second-in-command with his small troop of warriors. I feel naked without Roz beside me. He has become my right arm over the last few months.
The fervor of the valley guards as they saluted surprised him. The respectful treatment carried to those he met as he entered the valley. It had been some time since his last visit, and since then he’d participated in many successful attacks on the Tlo%m forces. As a result, Gryphon he’d played with as a youngster were now treating him with a respect he associated with his father. Then he noticed even older Gryphon and mini-Gryphon behaved in the same manner. It was unsettling.
I do not feel as though I have changed at all, he thought. At least not for the better. My father is right when he says war makes victims of everyone.
He headed straight for the bathing pools, not wanting to report to the Shiev of the Valley with layers of dried blood and dirt covering his body. His troops required stealth to sneak up onto the Tlo%m forces, and as a result, they could not encumber themselves with the heavy armor his father’s warriors used. The stiffened leather substituting for armor became even stiffer when soaked in blood.
Luckily, most of it is not mine, he thought as he stripped it off at the edge of the pool. Feels good to go natural.
A mini-Grypha materialized beside him to collect his armor and scurried off to get it cleaned before he could thank her.
I would clean it myself.
Feeling a little guilty at the preferential treatment, he dove into the warm water, submerging several times and contorting his body to rub the blood from his fur with a soap root. He finished his cleaning ritual by rolling himself semi-dry in the sand pit provided for the purpose before trotting to the Great Hall.
It had been some time since Karn met with the mini-Grypha shiev; most directives transferred either from his father, Kesar, or via a courier. Communications close to the front lines were low-tech to prevent the Tlo%m from intercepting any electronic messages. The Gryphon’s planetary shield prohibited advanced technology. Without the shield, the Tlo%m could use the power of their massive Motherships to obliterate the Gryphon colonies on the planet. The shield forced the enemy into a primitive ground war that permitted the Gryphon a chance to defend themselves.
Virra and Wilf waited for him in the meeting room just off the Great Hall. Due to their small size, mini-Gryphon weren’t warriors but instead provided support for the full-sized Gryphon fighting on the front lines. They were the technologists, metalsmiths, strategists, medics, and armorers supplying and guiding the war effort.
Karn felt a swift stab of shock as he greeted Virra. She is so small. As a young adult Gryphon, he almost reached his full size, but he now recognized how much he had grown since this conflict began. Studying the mini-Grypha, he also noted how tired she looked. At one time, the role of shiev was much less stressful. She has done an amazing job of guiding us through this conflict, but it looks like it is taking its toll on her.
He greeted Wilf with warmth; the mini-Gryph was a much-loved instructor from his youth. He noted the disheveled elder seemed preoccupied, as if something weighed upon him.
A few moments into the discussion that followed, Karn understood why.
“With all respect, I do not think you recognize the severity of the risk involved,” Karn said, hard-pressed not to pace the length of the room. They have no idea what they are asking of me. They have not seen these vicious aliens at work on the front lines. He struggled to keep his tone respectful. “Even if the message gets through, and they send a Tlo%m unit to intercept us, I cannot guarantee you will not get killed in the attack. Things are chaotic close to the front line, and the Tlo%m are ruthless. They want us all dead and have no interest in taking prisoners.”
“They will instruct the unit to take the target alive,” Wilf said. “They will then coordinate with the division that has the Healers.”
Karn knew the mini-Gryph well enough to notice he did not look happy with the plan. His angst changed to despair. They understand the risks, he realized, but it changes nothing. “I cannot talk you out of this, can I?”
It erased Karn’s opposition. He feels the same way I do. He just does not see another way. The big Gryph’s feathers flattened close to his skin in dismay.
“There is one more thing”—Virra’s voice was brisk, as if she was discussing a routine task—“when they attack, I will require a wound severe enough to need immediate medical attention.”
Karn’s jaw dropped open.
“And if she does not come back from this alive, I will be most perturbed,” Wilf added.
As Karn gaped at them in shock, any thought of reasoning with them took wing and flew out the nearest window.
SAR%KAN%BANE SAT IN THE NEAR darkness, listening to the jungle. If only it were dryer, I would not mind it down here. There was something inherently reassuring in the sounds of life around her regardless of the strife of the war. This planet teems with life. The rebellion suggests that a single indigenous species is the target of the Council. As if any single species is worth bringing my people to the brink of losing everything.
Lost in her thoughts, a the soft beep startled her. She jumped to activate her console, listening to the message before sending it on and erasing all trace of it.
For a while, Sar%kan%bane sat with her mind spinning. I did not expect them to come through. Their response was the first sign of the Gryphon’s full participation in the Tlo%m rebellion, and it was exciting. It was also fraught with risk from every angle. I want to help them, but I do not know how. She sighed. Whatever happens, it is out of my hands. Any unauthorized attempt on her part to ease this latest development might reveal the entire plan. There is little I can do to help—they are on their own. These Gryphon are resourceful and brave, but they will have to call on all their talents for this plan to succeed.
AS KARN TROTTED AT THE FRONT of a small group of Gryphon, he shifted under the weight of his full body armor. It has been months since I last wore it.
In formation behind him, his armored troops kept pace. Four Gryphon carried a covered platform containing Virra. The mini-Grypha could not hope to keep up with the full-sized Gryphon as they traveled, and the covered platform, known as a rova, ensured she was safe and comfortable as they moved.
Although on the large side for his species, the Gryphon flanking Karn truly was a giant. His friend and second-in-command, Roz, had always been larger than average. It seemed he would never stop growing.
Karn was proud of his ability to conceal his emotions, but he knew Roz picked up on his inner tension. They had been together too long to hide things from each other. I want to tell him what is going on, but I cannot. It is important everyone believes we are escorting Virra to a meeting with Kesar near the front lines. My warriors are good at what they do, but they are too honest. One comment at the wrong time could jeopardize the entire mission. This close to the action, Tlo%m scouts are in the most unexpected places.
Including human slaves into the Tlo%m fighting ranks expanded the versatility of their war machine. Humans were clever and agile, and they were better than their masters at skulking in the shadows.
Tlo%m are ruthless and vicious, Karn thought, but in a way, they are an honest evil. They are much easier to predict than their human soldiers.
Karn was keeping his scouts closer than normal, and he knew Roz grew restless with the unusual state of affairs. It was reckless to keep the scouts so close. If and when the attack comes, Karn wanted to make sure every warrior, including the scouts, would be as safe as possible. I am determined not to lose anyone in this debacle.
Virra worried enough about his decision to call a halt and question him privately. She didn’t want anything to trigger the suspicions of the Tlo%m. Karn did not yield. I know the enemy too well. They are arrogant. They will assume I am incompetent.
At least, he hoped so. Regardless, he was too good a commander to sacrifice warriors on a scouting duty that was predetermined to fail.
Karn’s uneasy thoughts caused the spikes along his spine to bristle erect. He sensed Roz’s concerned but surreptitious glances.
The Gryphon body is just not designed for subterfuge, he thought in frustration. I have to take care. Roz knows my moods. It is a quality that proved useful in the past, but is working against me now.
His friend’s close bond made them an efficient and effective team. From the early days of the war, Karn demonstrated keen intuition when it came to battle timing and strategy. He had an uncanny ability to guess the location of the Tlo%m fighting units and when they would be most vulnerable to attack. The young Gryphon leader couldn’t explain how he predicted such things; he would just get a creeping feeling when the enemy was near. The feeling was very reliable when the units were Tlo%m soldiers, but it turned out less so once the human slaves joined the war. The slave fighters caught Karn’s troop by surprise a few times until he could adapt.
Karn got uneasy. I feel like a traitor, not putting them on immediate alert. I have to time this so carefully. The Tlo%m must be given an opportunity, and I am reluctant to give it to them.
He moved the group up to a canter, closing the distance on the scouts. Frowning, Roz matched his pace. For an instant, the two were distant from both the scouts ahead and the warriors surrounding Virra.
Karn moved so close to his friend the shoulders of their forelegs rubbed together. “Roz, listen.” He sensed his friend stiffen in mid-stride, but the giant Gryph nodded. “Something important to the future of the war is about to happen. I need you to do as I say without asking any questions. It is not going to make much sense, but it is crucial you follow my orders to the letter.”
Roz’s brows lowered into a formidable glower at the confirmation he was deliberately kept in the dark, but he nodded again as he scanned the surrounding landscape. The troop entered a shallow valley. The raised land on each side of them could hide an entire Gryphon troop. His people were masters at stealth. Tlo%m were not as good at camouflage, but there were several large boulders to give them adequate cover.
Will the Tlo%m send a fighting unit or commandos? Karn’s thoughts raced as he examined the terrain. The fighting units each had one Fang commander, his alien bodyguards, and a large group of human or alien slave soldiers. If they send a fighting unit, I can’t ensure Virra’s survival. It depends on the control the commander has over his slaves during battle. So long as they know about the plan and aren’t merely a fighting unit just out on a random patrol. If that is the case, our lives will hinge on my ability to tell the difference in an instant. Karn swallowed with a grimace, his stomach churning. I’m hoping for a commando unit.
If it was a commando unit, the entire complement of soldiers would be Tlo%m. Each soldier would be in on the objective, and Virra would be, ironically, safer.
Karn turned to his friend. “When the attack comes, I need you to grab Virra and separate her from the troop as though you are taking her to safety.”
The huge Gryphon’s face cleared a little at Karn’s sensible tactic.
Karn winced, knowing Roz’s relief would not be long-lived. “At some point, Virra will seem to panic and try to get away from you. You are to let her go. Make it look accidental, like you stumbled or something.”
Karn knew Roz was far from clumsy despite his size. It wouldn’t be easy for him to fake a stumble. Karn saw his friend resist the urge to ask questions, which was why he was telling him this now when questions were impossible.
Karn reached to remove something from a concealed pocket on his heavy armor. He sensed rather than saw Roz’s eyes widen as they registered the old laser in Karn’s hand. Gryphon seldom used lasers, although they often salvaged them from the Tlo%m fighters after successful battles. By this point in the war, such weapons were unreliable at best, poorly holding their charge and useless in the close fighting the Gryphon preferred. Swords and knives were their armament of choice.
Karn hesitated before continuing his instructions, holding the weapon close against his body to hide it. “You are tasked to keep any Gryphon from protecting Virra when she runs. Try to keep yourself between them and her. I am also counting on you to keep any stray lasers from striking her. I must then do something you will not understand, and it might cause our own people to turn on me. You must have faith; it is all part of a larger plan.”
Roz looked concerned and confused.
Karn counted on the giant Gryphon even more than he could guess. My life is in your hands, my friend.
They had caught up with the scouts, who stopped, turning toward them in confusion. Close behind them, the warriors guarding Virra pulled up. The entire troop grouped together.
Karn’s expert eye scanned the valley walls, which were a little steeper here. If I was them, this would be the perfect time and place . . .
He did not even flinch when the first laser beam sliced past him, missing him by mere inches. The strength of the laser blast and the accuracy over distance gave Karn the information he waited for.
Newer rifle. He would have had me if I was in range, he thought. Tlo%m sniper. Commando unit.
“Roz! Go!” Karn yelled as he whirled around to address the others. “Everyone else, find cover!”
NERVOUSLY WAITING INSIDE HER rova, Virra heard the opening salvo move to draw aside the heavy curtain. No sooner had she done so than two strong, heavily muscled arms plucked her from within.
Roz effortlessly lifted her from the platform and carried her toward a nearby boulder.
“Roz!” Virra hissed his name and saw one large eye roll her way. The closest ear also twitched in her direction. “Put me down. Now!”
The giant Gryph groaned, but a moment later her feet touched the ground. He continued to drag her alongside for a fraction of a second, and she sensed his reluctance to release her. A laser spat off the boulder behind them, setting fire to the brush.
“Virra . . .” he began, worry in every line of his craggy face.
“You must let me go.” Her voice was calm. She felt him stumble as if tripping, and his fingers loosened. The second she was free, she ran as fast as her legs would carry her and screamed as if overcome with hysterical fear.
The other Gryphon in the troop spotted her situation and moved from where they had taken cover to protect her. Then a huge form loomed between her and them as Roz followed Karn’s orders. He galloped alongside her, shielding her from stray laser blasts and the protective arms of the other Gryphon. His long strides would have caught her in an instant, but she knew he was faking a limp to keep himself a little behind her.
A deliberately erratic path carried her away from the Gryphon and closer to the enemy. She was close enough now to spot some of the Tlo%m warriors hiding behind clumps of bushes.
Tlo%m warriors, not human slaves. Not a fighting unit—but a commando unit on a mission. Our plan is working, she thought.
Virra faked a long look at the Tlo%m to one side of her and screamed. She darted sideways to bring herself closer to three others on the other side. Behind her, Roz ducked a bolt and took a second glancing blow to his armored shoulder. His movement dropped him a few stride lengths back from her.
Now, Karn, she thought. Do it now!
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the young leader as he pulled up from his full-gallop pursuit and shouted something to Roz, who reared to his full height in response. Thus provided with a clear view of Virra, Karn took aim and fired.
Pain seared along her side and her breath caught in her throat. She gathered herself and lunged forward, bringing herself so close to the Tlo%m she could smell them. At the last second, she pretended to see them and swerved away in apparent panic. When she tried to draw breath, the pain rose like a tidal wave. With blackness engulfing her, she collapsed almost at their feet.
AFTER HE SAW Virra go down, Karn bolted forward as the Tlo%m stepped forward to claim their prize. Noticing his friend also take a bounding stride toward the enemy, Karn lunged forward and crashed across his path, blocking him.
Karn almost went down when Roz ran full tilt into him. His armor absorbed most of the blow, enabling him to scramble and stay on his feet. “Roz! No! We must retreat!”
Roz glowered at him, every feather of his mane erect and quivering in outrage. Laser fire rained around them, rebounding off of their armor. One bolt carved a path through Karn’s mane, singing an exposed ear. From behind them, the rest of the troop pounded up, their expressions stiff with shock. Their armor would protect them from some of the laser fire, but it was only a matter of time before it penetrated or found an opening.
“She’s gone. We have to retreat.” Karn locked his gaze with his friend’s and whistled at him a segment of a song Gryphon often used while hunting. The signal it was time to go.
Karn spun away and repeated the whistle to the others, who milled around them with drawn swords. They were expecting a signal to attack, not retreat, and they paused in confusion. They looked from Roz to their leader, whom they just witnessed shoot their shiev.
Karn waved his arm and repeated the retreat signal. All eyes focused on him, and a few stepped forward, their expressions angry.
Roz raised his axe and swung it in a big circle to divert their attention. Moving deliberately, he whirled his big body around and leaped away from the Tlo%m. One by one, the others followed, leaving Karn to provide cover fire with his laser before bringing up the rear.
Well, they did not immediately cut me to ribbons, Karn thought as he drained the old laser with a final blast over his shoulder and concentrated on galloping out of range of the Tlo%m weapons. Now we will see if they believe what I have to tell them about this crazy plan. If I hadn’t heard it from Virra’s lips, I doubt I would have believed it myself. Thinking of her made his heart pound. How badly did I hurt her? What if they cannot get her medical attention in time?
It became clear the Tlo%m had what they wanted when they did not pursue the Gryphon. Karn pulled his troops up after a short gallop. As everyone gathered around him, he took stock of their injuries, relieved to see only minor cuts and burns. Thank goodness for the armor; it was effective against the hand lasers of the commandos.
Lucky for us, the Tlo%m did not bring along a laser cannon. It could have been much worse. He flinched internally at the confusion and anger on the faces of warriors he respected and admired. It will not get any better for a while.
“I know you are all wondering what is going on,” he said, speaking so faint they had to lean in to hear him. “I cannot explain it all to you right away since we still have work to do. I can tell you there is a reason for what I have done, as what you have witnessed is part of a preordained plan. I am asking for an extension of your faith in me, a faith we have built over our many missions together. I must also ask you not to speak aloud of any of this, for there are ears everywhere. I promise there will be answers when the mission is over.”
They were silent, but their body language expressed the frantic activity within their minds: ears flicking back and forth, spikes and feathers rising and falling, tails thrashing. If they turned on him, he was unlikely to stand against them.
Gryphon are not naturally violent, he thought, but war changes us all. They are upset and angry.
Roz stepped sideways to stand close beside him, his expression schooled to one of calm trust. Karn was confident the giant Gryph had his share of questions, but thankfully Roz was making it clear he stood with him no matter the situation. One by one, the latent hostility and confusion subsided. Their uncertainty was still clear in the twitching ears and tails, but they were open to further instruction.
They trust me, at least for now. Karn wasn’t sure he would have been so understanding if the situation were reversed. They saw me shoot someone who was at the least an important figurehead, and to many a personal acquaintance or friend. For all they know, I have lost my mind and gone rogue. Roz’s support has a lot to do with their acceptance. I owe him big after this one.
Roz shook his thick mane and voiced the question on all their minds. “So what now, my leader?”
Karn flattened his ears and pulled his lips back from his teeth, looking every inch the fierce leader they’d followed in battle after battle. “Now,” he said, “we make them pay for their arrogance. Our enemies do not yet know most of them will not reach the jungle alive. We must leave them in no doubt their prize comes at a high cost.”
SAR%KAN%BANE WAS GIVING HER co-worker an easy day, assigning her basic maintenance tasks away from the consoles. This would make sure the young rebel would have unlimited access to any incoming messages. Despite the optimistic preparations, she felt surprised and pleased when the message came through from the commando team.
Her hearts sang as she acknowledged the message, and after the gruff commando signed off, transferred the message to datachrys. Most wireless systems were unreliable within the planetary shield, so the war coordinator insisted on primitive datachrys to keep her apprised of progress.
Sar%kan%bane walked down the hall to the coordinator’s office. She paused just long enough outside the door to indicate respect before entering and bowing to the Tlo%m seated within.
Even seated, Tar%tosk%rask was tall and angular, her reptilian head-crests coming to points almost as sharp as those of any male Tlo%m. One clawed hand tapped on her desk, and her reddish-orange eyes pierced the technician as she waited for her report.
“Commando team twenty-two X has reported in. They have been successful in their acquisition of the Gryphon strategist. Although pursued, they are confident they will reach the jungle with their target,” Sar%kan%bane said.
When she paused, Tar%tosk%rask’s eyes narrowed, and the red tones dominated the orange. “But?” she hissed.
“The Gryphon Leader attempted to prevent the strategist’s capture by shooting her. She is injured and needs immediate medical attention if she is to survive.” Sar%kan%bane swallowed, hoping any enthusiasm in her voice would be attributed to the successful capture of the Gryphon. She also hoped she would survive the next few moments. The war coordinator did not react well to bad news.
Indeed, Tar%tosk%rask’s eyes sparked fire. “Efficient of the Gryphon Leader. I would have done the same. Unfortunately, the commandos did not plan for that contingency.” She stood, and towering over the nervous technician, paced to a holomap running along one wall. Anger radiated from every scale of her rigid back. “Have the unit coordinate with FHR division twenty-eight X six. It is the closest to their exit point. I trust the division’s Healers will make short work of the Gryphon’s wounds.” Her tone indicated there would be dire implications if they did not. “Tell the commandos to collar the subject. I do not want to take any chances of her escape.” She returned to place her splayed fingers on her desk and skewered the technician with her gaze. “Make sure you inform Jarzak of the developments. Dismissed.”
Sar%kan%bane placed the datachrys on the coordinator’s desk and fled. She did not bother to hide her relief at being dismissed. Lately, most of those dealing with the war coordinator were relieved to escape any interactions intact.
She sent the commando team their instructions and provided an update to the operations coordinator, Jarzak. As soon as her co-worker left for a break, she tapped in a message on the secure channel:
Mission proceeding as planned. Culmination estimated on schedule. Will apprise Gryphon of target coordinates when acquired.
She sent it and set about covering her tracks. Her twin hearts raced. They did it. The Gryphon actually did it. They have launched the catalyst into the morass of planning and intrigue, and who knows what effect it will have in the long term? We will know soon, very soon, if the rebellion has any teeth.
VIRRA HAD NEVER KNOWN such pain. Two strong Tlo%m commandos were hauling her wrapped form between them. Their breathing was hoarse as they staggered along with their burden. Virra smelled their frustration and anger.
At first, there had been many coarse, whispering voices and heavy footsteps as they made their way into the jungle. Now, those sounds reduced to a very few.
Karn’s warriors are relentless, Virra thought through her fog of pain. They are doing their job well.
The black wave took her under. When they dropped her onto the ground, the impact shook her to consciousness. The resulting pain almost overwhelmed her, but she fought to hang on. Lights blinded her when they pulled the cloth back. Large hands grabbed her fur and hauled her head up. Then they slipped something metallic beneath her neck.
Her eyes snapped open, and she kicked out with her hind legs, connecting hard with something behind her. One Tlo%m cursed and ordered her legs be pinned down. Weight held her legs immobile. Another Tlo%m leaned on her head. She gasped for air.
The metal twisted and moved beneath her neck. It snugged up against her throat, and something burrowed through the fur behind her left ear. She felt the wires pierce the skin and scatter throughout her brain. The metal stopped moving and lay inert.
A slave collar, she thought in horror. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to her they would collar her. It is not usually done in the field. They are taking no chances with me.
The weight lifted, and she gasped for breath. As the Tlo%m rewrapped her in the cloth, she let the darkness take her under again.
Another jolt as she hit the ground snapped her out of it. This time, she was too weak to lift her head when they pulled back the cloth. Even her eyes refused to focus.
A small, warm hand touched her. The fuzzy outline of a bipedal form swam into focus. Not Tlo%m.
Virra struggled to stay conscious as she examined the creature bending over her. Another similar form appeared, leaning closer to her. She saw a cloud of red hair around a small, flat face. The hands reaching for her head were long and nimble, almost Gryphon-like with each finger ending in a dainty but strong claw.
Healers. Relief flooded her. I have found them. Our plan has worked. Soon I can plant the seeds of the rebellion. It will then be up to these few humans as to whether they bear fruit.
Something touched the center of her wound, and she gasped in pain. The small hands gently stroked her face, and the pain was gone. Who says Gryphon cannot practice subterfuge? Wilf will be so proud.
As Virra slipped back under, she felt a touch of pride in their accomplishment.
[+ FREEFORM: Book One of the Gryphon Saga+]
Imagine a world where legends run free and nightmares seek power. One where humans are enslaved and a living myth brings hope. The Gryphon Saga follows the lives of people kidnapped from Earth and forced to serve a vicious alien army fighting a war to acquire a powerful species. Their newly enhanced skills develop them into Healers and warriors while they struggle to survive on a hostile world. Yet they are not alone in their struggle, for this world is home to the unlikeliest of allies . . . a living myth that teaches them a simple secret: Freedom comes from within. Genetically altered, Lianndra and her friends now face a future in which she is no longer truly human. Yet from a surprising source, a rebellion brews. One which uses their new talents to unleash potential previously untapped. In the short-story A Shot in the Dark, one mini-Grypha must make the ultimate sacrifice to kickstart the rebellion.