ALL COHERENT THOUGHTS went out the window. My eyes felt like they'd pop out of my skull.

Griffons—about the size of an elephant, with immense feline bodies, each flash of lightning revealed more; long tails lashing in agitation and massive wings folded at their sides, sharp inquisitive eagle heads surrounded by impressive manes. The five of them eyed us intently. Desperation flooded my limbs and my knees turned to water while I struggled to stay on my feet.

Oh crap. What are we meant to do now?

I felt the others quiver beside me.

'Greetings, can we offer you assistance?'

I gaped stupidly at the griffon; it could speak?

About to lose it completely, I spied a shape perched behind the griffon's head. The griffon made a subtle gesture, dropping its foreleg slightly and the man casually slid to the ground in an obviously well practiced move.

Still frozen in our gathered fighting position we tensed when he strode toward us. A tall imposing figure, he wore heavy looking armor and a cape flared out behind him. Another flash of lighting showed dark hair and dark eyes, his walk casual yet officious.

Remembering then exactly how awful I must look, I made a quick attempt to neaten up. Keeping a firm grip on the handle of my sword I hurriedly wiped at the blood on my face with my free hand. Ouch! I winced, feeling the chunk I'd taken out my tongue. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the others doing the same. After glancing at Kassie and Loi I realized our efforts were pointless, we looked like actors from a horror movie; so much for first impressions.

THE BLOND MAN leaned out to watch the reaction of the women while his leader approached them.

'He wants you to join him,' his griffon informed him.

'Right,' he thought back and swung his leg over the saddle then slipped down Tomiar's forearm to the ground. The others moved forward with him to stand behind their leader, quietly observing the bloody and disheveled young women.

THE SUDDEN STOP from our frantic fight for survival felt mind spinning. Trying to get my brain back to a civilized state proved as successful as straightening my clothes had been. I varied between wanting to scream and wanting to sob; it all just too much at the moment. While we stood there still on guard, others slid down from the griffons. I didn't want to take my eyes off those enormous creatures so made quick glances to see who approached.

Men...all men.

My back stiffened. What would any sane person be doing out on a night like this? It must be nearly three or four in the morning. The rational voice in my head warned me to stay on guard.

We heard a whine and turned. Audi crept toward us through the gap between two griffons. The griffon which the first man had slid down from turned its head sharply, leaned over and sniffed at her. Audi froze and flattened against the ground, her eyes petrified. A whimper escaped my throat and the others seemed to lean toward her with me. The man laughed.

'Loushka won't harm your dog,' he assured us. 'She likes dogs.'

Loushka gave Audi a gentle nudge with her beak. The dog yelped in surprise then bolted for us, scooting in between Sian and I. Everyone froze at the sudden and unexpected movement. Loushka cocked her head at us, peering after Audi and then made a chirruping noise. The man smiled and stepped closer, barely an arms width away, then bowed.

'My name is Alek; I am the head of the Griffon Guard which protects these lands.' He turned and indicated to the men and griffons. 'This is Daron and his griffon Nesha. Rumal and Kerak, Gredel and Phroma, and Sabyn with Tomiar.'

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