The late spring storm had settled around their scouting party, pushing them against a rocky outcropping. Clouds, billowing and dark, brought on a premature nightfall broken only by occasional flashes of lightning. Wilem looked to his fellow scouts, his own exhaustion mirrored in their ragged expressions.
“Don’t look so glum! The rain will hide our tracks,” he said. He forced a smile and clapped Maiele on the shoulder. The quiet Elken only snorted, frown deepening. Beyond their small overhang, the wind began to howl, drowning out any more conversation. Wilem’s smile faltered, and he settled back against the cliff face to watch the storm. He didn’t mind the delay in their mission; it wasn’t as if any of them really owed allegiance to their commander, anyway.
Wilem awoke with a start. His heart hammered in his chest, but as he looked around he couldn’t understand why. Even in the darkness ─ it must have been a full hour after sundown ─ he could just see the still shapes of his three associates huddled under the ridgeline, asleep. A cold sweat, separate entirely from the continuing rain, beaded on Wilem’s forehead. He took a slow, shaking breath. If the group settled down to sleep, they would have posted a lookout. Maiele was typically the first to volunteer for the position, but as Wilem scanned the area, he couldn’t pick out the Elken’s familiar form. He felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle. To his left, where the rest of the scouting party slept, he heard a soft but distinct thump. He froze, muscles taut.
No one in the group moved.
“Maiele?” he whispered, voice strained. There was no answer, save for a groan of protest from one of the sleeping forms. In the distance, thunder rumbled, but Wilem could swear he heard another sound beneath that deep roar. A wet scraping, like something being slowly pulled through the underbrush. Wilem shifted to his knees, peering desperately into the darkness. Were all three of the scouts still laying there?
Just on the other side of the group, he caught a burst of movement as a shadow detached from the cliff wall and dropped to the ground. That same soft thump proved the shape had weight. Wilem strained forward, desperate for a streak of lightning. As a scouting party, they didn’t carry torches; it was too conspicuous. But even in the darkness he could see the shadowy form shift backward, could see that it was dragging one of his companions off into the night.
Wilem choked on the cry that caught in his throat. Another thump, louder this time, reached his ears. It was close, just feet from where he knelt. Slowly he twisted his head around. The lightning he’d prayed for finally delivered, illuminating his world for an instant. An instant was all he needed. An angular, powerful beak slipped back into a sleek head. Massive wings, capable of lifting hundreds of pounds, draped down to barely brush the ground. Feathers gave way to fur and crouching, cat-like haunches. It was the unmistakable form of a gryphon.
His scream finally found purchase, but it was too late. The creature’s legs coiled and it pounced forward as the world was plunged into darkness again. Wilem threw his arms up to protect himself, but no sharp claws dug into him. In the dim light, he could just barely make out the shape of Maiele springing from the shadows. He slammed into the gryphon’s ribs as the beast leaped, throwing it off balance. In a flurry of feathers and screams, it careened onto its side, its massive wings keeping it down. Wilem’s instincts clicked back into focus. He darted towards the gryphon, drawing his dagger. With a snapping beak just inches from his arm, he plunged the blade into the beast’s neck. As it writhed and then stilled, he stood slowly and his eyes met Maiele’s. The Elken grunted softly, but even in the darkness Wilem could see the grin on his lips.
Three days later the pair left the rocky outcropping, that place where the gryphon had made its aerie. They left with freshly-fletched arrows, a stockpile of dried meat, and a renewed respect for late spring storms.