Chapter 14

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"You're not going to change your mind, are you?"

Kusarel shuffled her claws, but she forced herself to look Elkeri in the eye. "No, I'm not. I'm going to find Xaiel, no matter what."

Her friend held her gaze for multiple heart beats, her expression unreadable. The two gryphons sat outside the healer's hut, keeping their voices low. Happy with her recovery, the healer had released Kusarel from her care and promptly shooed the two of them out the door. Apparently, she hadn't been joking about wanting that vacation.

Just as Kusarel hadn't been joking about wanting to follow Apael. Elkeri hadn't brought up the topic again in over a week, while she finished recovering, but they could no longer ignore the issue.

"Ok, let's say we find your crazy twin again. Then what?"

She felt her stomach wrench and her throat close up. This was exactly the question she had been dreading, for the simple reason that she had no clue. Every time she had wondered this herself, all she could see were cruel talons plunging deep into her flesh and pulling her apart. Her mind always froze, replaying this grim future, and she had repressed the nagging question each time.

Maybe this isn't such a good idea. You don't have a plan, Kusarel, and you're too scared to even think of one!

"I'm guessing your silence means you have no idea," Elkeri said in an emotionless voice. Her eyes glimmered like smooth stone, barring Kusarel from reading what she was thinking.

"I...I don't know. I don't even want to think about it." Repulsion at herself rose up deep inside her, making her throat tighten even more. Unable to meet those hard eyes, she finally turned away, choosing to gaze at the shattered path beneath her feet instead.

A wing spread over her body and engulfed her, pulling her close in to Elkeri. "I'm not trying to be mean, Kusarel, honest. I just don't want to see you get hurt again. It could be much, much worse next time, you know?"

Oh, she knew. Her mind insisted that she know that quite well, replaying those claws and beak coming at her without end.

"Maybe we could just watch Apael? Not let him know we're there?" she voiced, cuddling closer to Elkeri. The feel of her friend's feathers against her own made her feel just a bit calmer and safer, at least for the moment.

"That's probably our best bet--just watch him and hope we can figure out what's going on. Though we'd have to be really, really careful, Kusarel. You look just like Apael, so if word spreads he has a twin running around the city, he'll come looking for you."

With a short laugh, she poked Elkeri with the tip of her beak. "Of course I'll be careful! You're the hot-head, remember?"

"I know, but you're the one getting all emotional about seeing Xaiel again, so I'm reminding you. No trying to hug Apael and all that."

Kusarel gave a snort and clicked her beak, trying to give off an amused vibe she did not feel. "I'm not doing that again. I learned my lesson the first time."

Lifting a claw, she brushed the featherless skin on her chest. The wound had healed enough to no longer need bandages, but the feathers still hadn't grown back, leaving an ugly, jagged line for all to see. The exposed skin burned an angry red, still irritated and raw.

What if the feathers don't grow back? I'd feel so wrong without all my feathers.

She knew it was a silly thought. With everything going on, who cared about a scar and a few lost feathers? Yet she still longed for some normalcy, and the thought of bearing a permanent sign of the worst days of her life didn't sit well with her. She moved a talon up to cradle the pendant gifted to her by her mother, sitting just above the scar.

"You look like a war gryphon now, with that scar," Elkeri said with a sassy little tail flick. "All fierce and battle-hardened. Ready to go fight for the Empress, Kusarel?"

She hissed and flapped her wings, pushing Elkeri away from her. Her friend only snickered in response, looking all-too pleased with herself for rubbing Kusarel the wrong way.

"I'd never fight for the Empress. She took my family away, and she ordered that cub to be killed!"

Elkeri looked at her in stillness for a few seconds before doubling over, clutching her chest as she laughed. "Now that's just gold! Who was the one who told me and Xaiel to cut the blasphemy all the time?

Laying her ears back against her head, she sat down on her haunches and glared at Elkeri. "Alright, fine: You were right about the Empress. There, I said it. You happy now?"

"Overjoyed," Elkeri gasped between laughs. With a few coughs, she finally managed to calm herself down. "Guess you're one of us now. I'm so proud of you, Kusarel."

"Thank you so much," she muttered. With the thought of Xaiel and Apael looming over her, she didn't much feel like joking around and giggling. Besides, Elkeri had been much too loud. She craned her neck to the side to peer around the corner, making sure no one was there listening in. Thankfully, they were still alone, the alley beside the healer's hut remaining empty.

"Jokes aside, I'm serious." Elkeri nudged her on the shoulder, a little more gently than usual. "You've handled this all really well, considering. And you did a great job fighting Apael."

Kusarel cocked her head in disbelief. "I did a horrible job, Elkeri. That's why I have this scar, remember?"

"Wrong. You have that scar because YOU were trying not to hurt him." Elkeri pointed a talon at her and jabbed it with each word, as though trying to beat the meaning into Kusarel's mind. "You pinned him down super fast, and if you were fighting for real, you would've killed him right there. That's extremely impressive."

The unexpected compliment made heat rise to her face. She mumbled something unintelligible, trying to find the right words. "But I'm bigger than him. It doesn't count."

"Again, wrong. He's a soldier, remember? Red power feathers? He should be way stronger than you. But you still pinned him down." Elkeri looked down at Kusarel with her ears perked upright, her expression a mix between tender and proud. Suddenly, her eyes switched to blazing hot, searing straight into Kusarel. "But that doesn't mean you can approach him again, you hear? He still has serrated claws and that beak, and I KNOW you won't fight back for real, so he'll always have the advantage."

Kusarel held up a claw, cutting off Elkeri before she could continue on her rant. "I understand, Elkeri. We'll stay hidden the whole time, promise."

Elkeri grumbled something and shook her whole body viciously, like she was trying to toss away her anger. Her horns veered a bit too close to Kusarel's face for comfort, and she shied away. She had already been slashed near the beak once already--no need to go through that again.

"As long as you promise. But let's get out of here. There's no point staying in Rivel if we're going to the city around the palace." Elkeri pulled out the map from her bag, the one Xaiel had given them at the very start. Even though it had only been a few weeks, the parchment somehow managed to look more wrinkled and battered than before, as though it too had been under more stress than usual. Elkeri peered down at the map, pointing at a spot near the very top. "Looks like this is the city we want, to the north. It's called Shamais, apparently. The palace is right at the very back of it."

Shamais. The name sent a tingle down her feathers. While her mother had never talked much about other cities, this was a name she recognized. The favorite place to live for nobles and other higher-up gryphons. Salaki had sometimes uttered the name in a wistful manner, like she dreamed of being whisked away there someday.

Of course, she had gotten her wish when she went off with the Empress. She likely lived either in Shamais among the other nobles, or directly in the palace itself now.

What if I see her again? I couldn't let her see me. Her heart ached at the thought, but she knew it was true. Her mother thought she was dead, and they couldn't give Apael any idea they were stalking him. Approaching Salaki was not an option, as much as it may hurt to admit that to herself.

Maybe someday in the future, I can be with her again. But as she spread her wings to take to the sky with Elkeri, she didn't quite believe that anymore. The future seemed hazy, filled with serrated claws and uncertainty.  

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