William looked at the ground speeding past under the gently undulating edge of the flying carpet and shuddered. He hated the sight, but after two weeks in the air there wasn't much else to do. "I swear, I am never lending anyone money when I'm drunk, not ever again," he muttered to himself, the same way he had at least a hundred times over the past two weeks.
Flying shouldn't have bothered him. He was a wizard. He was a prince. This was the sort of thing wizards did, and the sort of thing that didn't bother princes. Unfortunately he wasn't a very good wizard. But, then, he wasn't a very impressive prince, or so he'd always been told.
He had managed not to be air-sick, though. He hoped that counted for something. He was pretty sure the three other men on the carpet appreciated it.
William shook his head. This had all made sense when it started. He'd been drinking and winning at cards, while a casual acquaintance of his had been drinking and losing at roulette. Phillipe needed a hundred crowns and happened to have a rare copy of Hutchinson's Bestiary; William had a hundred crowns and hadn't ever seen a copy of Hutchinson's Bestiary.
Hell, the man had been a viscount -- he should've been good for the money.
Of course, William shouldn't have been drinking either, but he'd just gotten a letter from home, and drinking always seemed in order after those. In this one he found that his oldest brother Johan, crown prince of Ventania, just had a fourth son. His middle brother Edmund had just added two ships to his merchant fleet. What, asked his father the king, had William done lately? Or ever?
The answer to that question was 'nothing'. Nothing of any substance, at least. Hence the drinking. And the living in a city three realms away from the kingdom of Ventania, but that wasn't in response to the letter as much as it was in response to his family.
That still didn't explain how he ended up sponsoring an expedition to the far realms to study griffons. He had a vague memory of Phillipe, more debts, and a chance to impress his father. From the size of the bar tab he'd paid, brandy had been involved too. Lots of brandy.
That brought him to where he was now. Sitting on an oversized throw rug, flying five hundred feet off the ground, in search of mythical beasts. Still, it beat yet another card party filled with vapid nobility. Mostly.
"Are we there yet?" William asked. He winced as soon as the words left his mouth. Two weeks of air travel had left him whiny, and it even bothered him.
"No, m'lord," answered Gaston, their guide. A greasy little man going prematurely bald, he'd made obsequiousness an art form, and had been getting on William's nerves for more than a week.
Gaston had come with the carpet. William may have been funding the expedition, but his alma mater, DuLac University, was providing the equipment. William hadn't minded, since he knew nothing about managing an expedition, and Gaston had been on dozens. It had made sense at the time, though now he wasn't so sure.
Hanson and Rolf, their two porters, ignored the question, the same one he'd asked hourly since breakfast. They were good at ignoring things. That was probably for the best, as he'd grown increasingly cranky as the days passed and boredom and nausea crept up on him. Between them they hadn't said a dozen words to him since they'd set off.
Gaston sat in the center of the carpet, the top of his head barely showing over the tops of the boxes that held the expedition's supplies. Past him William could see an unbroken expanse of grasslands, a mix of green and brown that showed the turning of the seasons, as winter made its way to spring. The setting sun cast long shadows through the hills as evening approached. The silvery orange glow of the flight crystals, fist sized chunks of quartz mounted on small pedestals at the four corners of the carpet, gave the illusion of warmth, but the ever-present wind cast a chill that made William pull his cloak tightly around him.
It would've been pretty, if they'd been on the ground.
"Well, how long is it, then? Damned inconsiderate griffons, living out in the middle of nowhere," he groused.
That bothered him as much as the constant motion, the unrelenting wind, and the weaselly looks Gaston kept giving him. Whining was... un-princely. They'd spent the past two weeks in flight, though. His legs were cramped, his back hurt, and he was more than ready to be finished.
Self-control was something he prided himself on, the only thing he'd ever had much pride in. He'd always done his damnedest to be a good prince, even if he never seemed to succeed. It didn't help that he was a plain man. Medium height, mousy brown hair, mousy brown eyes, doughy body, and right now with red, windburned cheeks. Nobility was supposed to look noble. William was just unremarkable, the sort of person that you wouldn't look twice at in a crowd.
"The campsite is just--"
Whatever Gaston was going to say was cut off by an ear-piercing shriek. Something hit them from underneath, making the carpet ripple wildly and its flight falter. The flight spell kept anything from flying off, but it wasn't enough to keep the men standing.
"What was that?" shouted William. He looked around frantically, trying to see what it was that was attacking them. The carpet was bucking beneath them, the wind whipping past fighting against the spells trying to level their flight. William was on his hands and knees, his stomach flopping as the flight spell wavered in and out.
Gaston never got a chance to reply. There was another shriek, this time from behind them. A wing struck William across the back of his head, sending him sprawling to the carpet. He looked up in time to see something flash past, something tan and feathered, with wings, paws, and claws. A griffon.
At least six feet from chest to rump, it had the body of a big cat, sleek and tawny with a long tail whipping behind it. Great wings sprouted from its shoulders. They were at least twenty feet from tip to tip, covered in dark brown feathers shot through with streaks of white. Its head was something like a hawk's, with a massive beak and tufts of feathers making it look like it had pointed ears. Its front feet were the claws of a bird, with vicious looking talons curving out from the tips of the toes.
This wasn't what griffons were supposed to look like. The Bestiary had been clear about that. Griffons were a hodge-podge of parts, bits of eagle and cat glued together. There had even been a picture of the thing with legs and wings at odd angles, all scrawny and awkward. The beast in front of him was anything but awkward. It was sleek. Powerful. Angry.
Fast and agile too. The griffon pivoted in mid-air and swooped back at them. William could see the bloodlust in its eyes. It wasn't just fury driving the beast, it was hate, running deep and hot.
The beast slammed down into the carpet, hooking in with its front talons and tearing at the fabric with its back claws. William and his men lost what little stability they had as the carpet bucked under the assault. One of the men, Hanson, fell too close to the beast. It lunged forward, snapping his hand off at the wrist with its beak.
Hanson screamed as blood spurted out of the stump in a gory fountain, turning to red mist as it caught the wind. The griffon stared at him as if it relished his pain, then grabbed him with one of those wicked talons and threw Hanson over the edge. A moment later the beast launched itself off the carpet after him. The man's shrieking stopped abruptly, but William didn't think he'd had time to hit the ground.
It was, for a moment, quiet. William, Gaston, and Rolf looked at each other, but nobody said a word. William hoped it was over, that the beast was content to have taken Hanson. He felt a twinge of guilt about that.
The moment ended when the griffon shot up in front of the carpet, its wings spread wide and body rearing, blotting out the sun setting on the horizon behind it. The look on its face was murderous, its eyes seeming to glow a faint purple. It flexed its claws in anticipation.
The three men panicked. Rolf dropped flat, mumbling prayers to deities he hoped were listening. Gaston dug wildly through their equipment, looking for something. William tried to think of something, anything, he could do. He was a trained wizard, and while he might not be a very good one he still could weave spells.
Unfortunately nothing he'd learned prepared him for this. If they ever covered rabid griffon attacks it must've been on a day he'd skipped class.
While William froze, Gaston grabbed one of the emergency flares and fired it at the griffon. The rocking carpet threw his aim off and the shot went wide, arcing up into the air and across the grassy plains below before blossoming into a great red flower. That might have helped, if there were people anywhere near, but the landscape around them was all grass and hills and empty space.
The flare spurred the beast into action, lunging at the men still on the carpet. Rolf grabbed a supply box and swung wildly, heaving it at the creature. The griffon bobbed up, letting the box fly past underneath it, then grabbed Rolf and Gaston in its claws.
William threw the only spell he could think of, a prank he'd learned in school. A stream of orange discs flew from his hand to hit the griffon in the face. They burst with a musical chime and the stench of rotting skunk.
Every wizard had their own personal touch when they cast spells, some little reflection of their personality that manifest. He knew wizards who had ice blue birds, green daggers, and one that managed rainbow pinwheels. It was a mark of competence when a wizard could cast a spell and not have them appear -- it showed they had enough mastery of the art to keep themselves out of the spells they wove.
He used to hate those discs. He'd never, in his life, been good enough to cast a spell without them. Now? Now they helped him aim.
The griffon wasn't amused, and it wasn't slowed. It plunged over the side of the carpet, the two screaming men clutched in its talons. One of the screams cut off abruptly. William peeked over the edge of the carpet in time to see the griffon drop Gaston's head. The beast was flying fast, faster than the head fell. When it neared the ground it let go and spread its wings. Rolf hit the ground hard, followed by Gaston's body. It was too far away, but William swore he heard the thuds.
He was next. He knew it. The griffon wasn't defending its territory, or its fledglings, or its food. It wanted blood and pain, and it wasn't going to stop until they were all dead. Probably not even then, William'd bet the creature would shred their bodies just for fun.
His only chance was to get far enough away that it lost track of him. "Go, go," William whispered, forcing as much mana as he could into the carpet's flight crystals. They had their own mana, the energy that flowed through the realms and powered spells, but William was a wizard and had his own personal store of the stuff. It wasn't much, but anything he could do to make the carpet fly faster would help.
The griffon shot past overhead. It was far faster than the carpet, so much so that William knew it had to have its own magic, as if the ten foot wings tacked on to a cat's body weren't enough of a clue.
If he was a better wizard he could have used his second Sight and tried to see what spells the thing used to fly, but he wasn't a better wizard. Everything he knew was small; spells to clean, to detect poisons, mend clothing, set seals, and open locks. All things that were useful if one was a prince, though less useful if one was being attacked by a wild animal. If the thing had been on fire he might, might, have been able to do something, but if the griffon had been on fire it probably wouldn't be bothering him in the first place.
The griffon wheeled around and slammed all four feet into the carpet, and only the stability spells woven into it kept William from being bounced off. The beast stalked towards him ever so slowly, digging into the carpet with its talons to keep stable. He could hear its low growl, see the death in its eyes as it approached.
William backed up, looking around for something, anything to use to defend himself, but there was nothing. When he reached the far edge of the carpet he glanced over, wondering if he could risk diving off the edge, but he was too high up and the ground beneath was rocky and uneven.
With a swipe of its foreleg the griffon struck at William. He tried to dodge but was too slow; it struck him a glancing blow and knocked him off the edge of the carpet. He grabbed at anything he could, catching hold of one of the flight crystals tied down to the corner of the carpet. Its supports held, just barely, leaving William dangling off the edge. The wind whipped past, grabbing at his legs and threatening to throw him to the ground below.
The griffon wasn't content to leave him there. It glared at him, feathered crest raised, eyes glowing a faint purple. With a low, keening growl it slashed at his hands. The twisting carpet threw its aim off, its claws hitting fabric instead of flesh. It was enough to rip the crystal free, and William fell.
The ground rushed up at him with alarming speed. He had nothing prepared for this, knew no spells that would save him. With a fast prayer to Danae, goddess of fools and travelers, he did the only thing he could think of -- threw what mana he had into the crystal.
It shouldn't have worked, but it did. The crystal flared to life and William's fall stopped.
Rather, the crystal's fall stopped, and William's arms were nearly yanked from their sockets trying to hold on. The surprise broke his concentration and the crystal flickered and died. Without its spell his fall started again.
He tried desperately to throw more mana at the crystal, but the pain in his shoulders and the panic in his head interfered, and he only just got the crystal activated as he slammed flat on the ground.
It felt like time had stopped -- he couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't think. The world spun and went red and hot, but William clung to consciousness and wouldn't let go. He hadn't escaped. He had outrun the beast, but only for a moment. If he passed out now he'd die, torn to shreds and eaten alive.
William forced his body to move, fighting the paralysis that gripped him. Through sheer force of will he rolled over, though it felt like he had to rip his body out of the ground to do it. His head threatened to explode and everything started to go dark, but he pushed on through the pain.
His whole body was numb, but he made it to his hands and knees, still gripping the flight crystal like a talisman, and from there he wobbled to his feet. At any second he expected to hear the shriek of the griffon, feel the pain as its claws ripped into him.
In front of him, just a dozen yards ahead was the bottom edge of a cliff. The cliff face was ragged, as if someone had torn the earth in two and left half behind. There was a crack in the rocks, with blackness behind it that might, just might, be a cave. He couldn't tell if it was deep enough to hide in -- his vision was swimming so badly he couldn't even tell if it was real -- but shelter was his only hope. There weren't even any trees around. If he stayed in the open he'd die, horribly.
He shambled forward, swaying drunkenly back and forth. Despite his terror, or perhaps because of it, the whole situation struck him as funny, and a giggle threatened to burst out of him. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with no supplies and his entire expedition slaughtered by the creature they were going to study, and the thing that was saving his life? The years of practice he had drinking with the vapid noblemen he'd come out here to escape.
The furious cry of the griffon behind him killed the giggles. William spun around, but the world spun faster and he landed on his ass. The beast was diving at him, wings back and claws forward, a bolt of feathered death. Without thinking William flung out his hand, the one still holding the flight crystal, and threw what little mana he had left into it. The crystal flared briefly, its flight spell lancing out, engulfing the griffon. The spell tangled with the griffon's own magic, making it speed up and over William's head. It slammed hard into the cliff face and fell to the ground, dazed.
William took the opportunity to scramble to his feet and limp as fast as he could towards the crack in the cliff. Every step was agony, but the screams of the porters still echoed in his ears, urging him forward and towards the blackness.
His reprieve lasted only a few seconds, the silence soon filled with the low rumble of an angry cat, the sound making William's skin crawl. He pushed himself as hard as he could, but his battered body could barely move. A quick glance to the side at the griffon was hardly reassuring. The thing's left wing was folded awkwardly against its body, clearly broken, but that wasn't stopping it. If anything it made the beast even more determined to wreak bloody, painful vengeance on him.
Its eyes were flaring a bright, ferocious purple. It was a nasty, unnatural color, one that numbed his mind and fought to hold his gaze even as he couldn't focus on it. William slowed, then stopped, unable to make himself move forward. As he put his foot down he stepped badly on the uneven ground. A jolt of pain shocked him enough to start moving again.
The griffon saw him move and lunged. Murder was in its eyes, and William was the target. He dove the last few feet into the dark opening, the glowing flight crystal in his outstretched fist lighting his way. The griffon lunged after him, shrieking wildly, furious that he might get away.
The crystal yanked him forward into the darkness, though not quite fast enough. One of the griffon's claws caught him in the hip. There was a brief moment of searing agony, mercifully cut short when his head slammed into the cave wall and the world went black.