Chapter 12

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Not a single gryphon dared approach them as they navigated through the shattered city. Some gryphons continued to watch from the sidelines, scrutinizing Kusarel and Elkeri with wary eyes. Others squawked and fluttered away once they saw Kusarel, a few throwing seething curses at her before slinking off. Their words made her feathers stand on edge, her whole body shivering from a strange mixture of shame and dread.

"Don't let them get to you," Elkeri whispered, scowling at the latest harasser before they slipped into the shadows. "You haven't done anything wrong."

She murmured a quick thanks, but that didn't squelch her feelings of guilt. She may not have done anything, but the citizens here thought she was apparently related to Apael, whoever he was. And their judgment made her want to apologize, explaining she didn't mean them any harm and she was sorry for whatever this Apael had done.

Of course, no one was going to give her that chance, so she kept plodding behind Elkeri, trying to keep her gaze focused on her friend.

"Any idea where Xaiel might be?" Kusarel piped up, more as a distraction than anything.

"Beats me. This whole place is a mess. He could be anywhere." Elkeri kicked a pile of rubble at her feet, sending it straight into a torn-down statue of a gryphon, covered in silver armor. Looking closer, Kusarel could see the "armor" was actually part of its skin, as though the gryphon had been born with metal instead of feathers in some areas.

"Godslayer statue," Elkeri noted, giving it an admiring look. "No wonder this city is known for rebellion, though. The gryphons here must really hate the Empress."

"Why is its skin like that?" Kusarel asked, still staring at the dust-covered statue. Something about the apparent fusion of armor into its body made her feel uncomfortable, like she was looking at something unnatural.

Elkeri gave her a funny look, one ear cocked back in disbelief, before she let out a hoot of laughter. "Right, we hung out with different groups. I forgot you wouldn't know much about the Godslayer. Too sheltered."

"Mother would have shrieked if I spent time with your friends," she muttered, feeling a bit defensive.

"Oh, trust me, I know. That's what made them so much fun," Elkeri chuckled. "But anyway, that's the Godslayer's power. Armor and insane strength. It makes them a beast, great for taking out corrupt rulers. If only we had one today," she added under her breath, glowering at the ruins around them.

She was about to hiss at Elkeri not to declare treason in public when a high-pitched scream rattled through the air, filled with sheer terror. They both froze on the spot, one of Kusarel's front claws dangling in the air as she stopped mid-step.

"Did you hear that?" she stuttered, forcing the words out as she tried to move her beak as little as possible.

"No Kusarel, I went deaf for a second and missed the eardrum-popping scream," Elkeri snapped back, pupils dilated.

She started to apologize when the wailing came again, broken up by racking sobs. Above it she heard the shouting of another gryphon, coming from the same location.

"Please, sir, he's just a cub! We don't need to hurt him."

A cold voice boomed over the others, piercing under Kusarel's skin like a ragged knife. "The Empress ordered all members of the resistance and their family to be executed. That includes the cub. Defying her is an act of treason, soldier."

Elkeri made choked noises, as though something was lodged in her throat. "Is that...Kusarel, did you hear?"

She wanted to come up with a sarcastic retort now that Elkeri was asking if she had heard, but the thought of the booming voice stilled her tongue. There was something not quite right about that voice, something so unsettling that it made her insides twist in on themselves. It sounded incredibly familiar, like she had heard it many, many times in the past, but never like that, with that mix between cruelty and apathy. She knew deep down that the voice should never sound like that, but why on earth would she feel that way?

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