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Venn had seen combat only once. He was running now, hunted by men on dragons. Trees hid him but he could hear the Imperials overhead, so that every rustle of leaves made him look up and stumble. If the rumors were true, the dragons would burn the forest to find him. Venn's feet throbbed inside his boots and his shield kept jabbing his back. Keeping it had been instinct, not pride, not that the swords and shields had saved the rest of his squad. They couldn't all be dead, they couldn't!

A stone caught Venn's foot and he flew headfirst into the dirt, stifling the urge to yelp in pain. He looked up in fear that the enemy had heard him anyway. Nothing. But he did see something else.

Here, deep in the forest where the light was dim, there stood a mossy hill. No -- a massive terrace of rock overgrown with moss and vines, three levels tall. Venn forgot the blood and grit on his hands and his skinned knees, and lay there a moment, staring.

He whispered, "Is this what they're after? This is what we were guarding?"

His squad had been told almost nothing. A bunch of farm kids didn't need to know why they were risking their lives, and they knew better than to ask. Venn had gotten a beating when he asked one question too many in training, about the Empire. And now here was a really big question, looming in front of him.

Venn climbed to his feet, swaying with fatigue. Somewhere nearby birds trilled, undisturbed by anyone following him. He looked around and saw no path to take but forward. As long as he was here he might as well see the place.

The three tiers of the ziggurat towered over him, yet even taller trees hid it from the sky. It took a while just to walk around it, between ominous-looking bladed plants and threading past a bubbling sand-pit. On one side of the building was something that might be an entryway. Venn braced his knees as he edged down the steep-sunken earth to a cluster of vines. With his sword he hacked them aside, revealing a huge pair of slabs spaced like doors.

"What are we fighting over?" Venn said again, reaching with one hand to feel the carvings. Most had worn away and showed only vague human shapes, but there was a clear hand-print carved into each slab too. Right where a tall, strong man would push.

Venn lifted his right hand to put it on a print, and felt very small -- not from having to reach up, but from being a visitor to someplace ancient and unknown. Though he hardly dared to, he pressed both hands to the stone. He stood alone in the forest.

With a low rumble he felt in his bones, the doorway slid open.

Inside, a light flickered at the start of a downward hall. Venn took a few steps and the walls glowed, leading him along. Someone or something knew he was here! His heart raced and he called out, "Hello?", but heard only his echo.

The light took him through twisting halls to a room so big its upper reaches were lost in shadows, a tangle of metal cords. All along the walls stood glassy jars bigger than a wagon on end and covered with frost. Venn shivered. Whatever this stuff was, it came from ancient times and might do anything at all. No two legends agreed.

Still, no one had threatened him yet for wanting to know.

He tapped one of the glass tanks with the edge of his sword. It rang beautifully. Between the tanks were stone pedestals, each with a set of glassy knobs. One glowed on each.

"Hello?" he said again. "Who's controlling the lights?" But no one volunteered. How could there be no one here, then? Was this place run by ghosts? He felt more frustrated than scared as he hit the glowing button beside him.

The glass tank hissed and made Venn jump away. Cold mist washed over him. The tank hummed.

Thump. Something struck the tank from inside. Venn stared as a big shape started to appear through the frost and the glass slid, opening...

Venn wasn't that curious; he was slamming the hard floor with his boots and getting out of there. The lights didn't follow him. He was just reaching the dark hall when a cold wind stirred the chamber again and he risked a glance over his shoulder. Something big had hit the floor! Up the hall he ran, hoping that the ghosts hadn't shut the door on him.

From somewhere behind there came a plaintive, piercing whistle. It stunned him; it was like music or the cry of a hawk. He stopped and turned.

Below was a soggy beast with golden fur and feathers like clouds. Its blade-beaked face fixed him with eyes like the sky. The creature wasn't trying to kill him yet, wasn't really doing anything; it was just watching. Waiting.

For what? Venn knew well enough about horses, sheep and capybara, but what was this thing? Head like an eagle, paws like a lion...

"Griffin!"

The griffin tilted its head at the sound. Venn found it funny, like a sign of recognition. He supposed he'd be baffled too if he'd woken up in a glass tank. But he didn't laugh; he'd seen people die today, some he knew. The griffin eyed him and it was hard to look away. Maybe he could coax it outside to find food other than him.

It could help in the war! It was big and powerful, so maybe it could be trained to fight -- and those were wings on its back, so maybe it could fly like a dragon. Venn sucked in a breath. It might even be something he could ride!

He approached the griffin with hands at his sides, pausing to let it smell him and size him up. There was some capybara jerky in his pack, so he slowly took it out and put half of the leathery strip on the floor and stepped away. After a moment the griffin jerked its head slightly down and took shaky steps towards the meat. Venn waited, holding his breath. The griffin gave him a look of disdain -- Is That All? -- but leaned down to devour the offering. Venn knelt and tossed the other half of the food a short distance from him. The griffin drew closer, hind-claws and fore-talons clicking on the floor. The long-still air stirred and whistled with a twitch of its wings.

"Trust me yet?" said Venn, watching it eat again. He'd learned you had to be careful around animals, of course, but you had to be open with them too. Meet them partway, give them a reason to like you. "I'll lead you out."

He took a step closer and the griffin locked eyes with him again. Very slowly he put out a hand, ready to snatch it back, and when nothing got bitten he touched the soft white feathers of the creature's head. A little chirp came from its beak but it made no move to attack him. A thrill went through Venn: here was a big, dangerous creature that could easily kill him, yet it chose not to! "Okay," he said. "Follow me. Come."

When he backed away, the griffin followed. Its steps were surer now. Venn walked back the way he'd come, and soon found the griffin walking beside him. The first sign of it was the feeling of its warm fur brushing against him in the cool air. Venn smiled, feeling a little safer, and better still when the door rumbled open at his approach.

Now the griffin ran ahead so that Venn struggled to keep up. It bounded two feet at a time with talons in front, claws in back, and burst through the doorway into the blinding forest light. Venn was left standing just outside as the griffin sprinted away and with two beats of its wings launched itself into the air. The world turned dim again as Venn's eyes adjusted, and he stood reaching forward as though he could pull the griffin back.

In a rush of wind that scattered leaves, the griffin swooped back into view. Venn ran up the slope to meet it, and it lowered its head and let him scratch it. "So, you do trust me. I'll take good care of you. Do you have a name?" Someone had put the beast in that frozen tank a long time ago for just such an occasion... How did he know that? "I'll call you Nev," he said on the spur of the moment, after a horse he'd once had. He was still thinking about daring to climb up on the griffin, and in fact "Nev" was standing there with bird-legs bent as if expecting it. Venn edged closer and stroked the griffin's hide where feathers met fur, then leaped up onto the broad back. Muscles rippled under the shoulder-fur.

Nev gave another piercing whistle and galloped ahead all at once! Venn yelped and clutched at fur and feathers, clenched his knees against its sides. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea!" Nev darted this way and that through the forest so that Venn was tempted to let himself fall off before the griffin could throw him hard, but already he risked breaking his neck. "I'm not going to hurt you, really!"

Now Nev bounded into the air again and Venn was really in for life or death. The huge white wings were clouds around him, curtains, a peaked roof meeting over his head, and there were walls of trees everywhere -- they were going to crash! Nev swerved left so that the ground was straight below and he could barely hang on; his fingers were iron. Just as he was about to fall the turn leveled out and he saw --

Nev was swooping down to the ziggurat's peak. Stopping. Venn breathed hard and relaxed a little. After a moment Nev turned his head to peer at him sidelong.

Venn could swear it was grinning!

So maybe it had been a riding beast all along, trained for combat. He couldn't see Nev being used to deliver mail. He flexed aching fingers and when he could speak again he muttered, "Okay, I trust you."

Nev waited for him. Venn got a better grip this time, arms around Nev's shoulders and chin tickled by feathers. "Can we go back to town? I'll steer."

As if on cue, Nev shoved the ground away and they were airborne again, flapping towards a sunlit hole in the forest canopy. Venn shivered and tried not to look down as the griffin arced upward, making him feel like up was forward, but once they burst through the trees (leaves splashing across his skin) Nev swerved back down, forcing him to see how high up they were. Venn gasped and buried his face in the feathers but they were still falling; he could feel it in his gut...

"Nev! Up!" He lifted his face just in time to see them flapping away from the trees just below, wings grazing branches. "What are you doing?!"

The beaked face whirled in an exaggerated arc as if to say, "Look!"

"Look?" said Venn, just as Nev dived again. This time when his stomach clenched he made himself stare ahead, down at the world, and he knew his griffin could handle it, wouldn't get him killed. He gritted his teeth and watched as Nev wheeled back up.

"You're... training me?" he asked when they'd leveled off. Nev only chirped. "Fine, then. Go right!" He leaned and felt Nev lean beneath him, making a gentle turn. The ground was almost straight below again but he could hang on long enough th coax Nev back to level. He even let go with one hand to flex the fingers, then the other, before settling fully on the griffin's back again and saying, "Okay. Let's find the town." The enemy might be gone by now, if they were just passing through.

It was easy to spot the town once he looked -- it was on fire.

They stalled in midair at the sight. Quickly recovering, they raced closer and saw dragons perched on the ground, their riders rounding the people up. There was the general store where he'd come every week; there was the temple, both burning. "Go!" said Venn.

One of the enemy riders was carrying a box of clothes out of someone's house, to the green dragon dozing in the hazy sunlight. Nev urged the griffin into a dive but the flames were getting close to the spot, and they landed just in time to find the Imperial soldier turning towards the gust of wind they'd raised.

"You've wrecked everything!" Venn said. "This is our land and you've got no right to be here!"

The soldier dropped the box -- fancy clothes, too nice for him -- and sputtered, "What is that?!"

"Griffin." Venn scratched Nev's flank and said, "Can you fight, Nev?"

The griffin's expression said, Oh, Please. This guy was the enemy, and was probably one of the ones who'd attacked his squad and burned the town. Yeah. Venn had to kill him.

Then the world shook and Venn was flying, knocked aside into a wall. It slammed the air from his lungs so that he lay there crumpled with something green nearby.

The dragon had woken up and slammed them aside. Now it was between him and Nev, but the griffin was between the dragon and its rider too. Venn's shield and sword were nearby and he scrambled for them while trying to breathe again. Nev shrieked ahead of him. The dragon slapped the ground with one foreleg, advancing on him, with furnace-heat rippling the air around its head.

Venn could only cower -- no! He made the best defense he could by forcing himself to leap ahead and swing the heavy sword at the beast's muzzle. It reared back, growling, and he used the chance to slip sideways towards Nev. The soldier shouted something over the noise. Nev did something and the dragon snaked its head around to look, giving Venn an opening. Venn dropped his shield, took his sword in both hands and shoved the blade at the thing's neck. He felt the tip skitter along scales and then slip between them, finding a weak point. He slammed the sword deeper and twisted. Steaming blood shot out at him and a clawed leg flailed, making him jump back, losing his grip. There came a blur of white and gold as Nev pounced from behind, raking the dragon's back with its claws and stabbing with its beak. Venn braced himself and grabbed the embedded sword as the hilt slapped his hands, then pulled it out and slashed again, clacking against scales.

The beast roared and collapsed. Venn stood there breathing hard, with dragon blood on him, staring at Nev on the dead thing's back. Now over the flames and the ringing in his ears Venn heard the soldier yell, "Coura!" and dash into view to press hands to the beast's slashed flank. When he looked back at Venn it was with absolute hatred that drove Venn back like a fist in his gut. "She was my best friend," the soldier said.

"You attacked us!" said Venn. "Nev, help!"

The soldier had eyes locked on Venn and charged with a sword. Venn's arms rang as he parried twice, outclassed by the man's strength and fury. He was against the wall --

Nev swatted the man aside to sprawl, broken, in the dirt.

Venn dropped his sword. He and Nev were suddenly the only ones left alive. Though he feared the griffin's power he stepped forward to embrace Nev's head and give thanks. They'd done the killing together; it was both their faults. But they'd had to!

The flames had circled them. Venn realized he'd forgotten about the other people, and cursed. Maybe he could still help them. He climbed onto Nev and without a word they were in the air again.

Everybody was being marched away from town, under guard by a dozen foot soldiers. Where were the other dragons?

Right overhead.

Venn shouted and got Nev swerving out of the way just as a dragon-rider slammed down at them. Wind whooshed by. They looked up to find an enemy rider diving at them while a second pulled up from his attack. Together Venn and Nev sensed the height advantage and went after the lower one, looking to beak-stab the dragon like a falling hawk.

But fighting the things in the air was tougher than on the ground. Venn's attack missed and it was all he could do to hold on and try to guide their moves, while huge wings whirled around him. Smoke streamed up and made his eyes water. They had to get higher.

During his climb, one of the dragons came out of nowhere and slammed Nev in the chest. The griffin flailed with claws but the world shook, the horizon was upside-down and his fingers were digging into Nev so hard it hurt.

He had to fight, had to kill them, had to hang on and get in control. Couldn't hold on, couldn't hold back...

Then he was flipping around in midair, fighting to stay up, and suddenly it was easy. Wings shoved the air down and the dragons circled, their riders staring at him. He shrieked and flew straight at one, grabbing a leathery wing with one taloned fist and yanking until the dragon tumbled, its rider hanging on and trying to recover. The other rider flew at him from above but he kicked himself higher at the last moment and then kicked the dragon too, feeling claws slam against scales.

Both dragons came up again from opposite sides. Looking down at them, he hovered and muttered, "Prey."

He pitched forward to meet them, talons outstretched. They were ready for him with snapping jaws, but he pulled away and flip-kicked, catching one dragon on the head. The other dodged and he had to lash out repeatedly before knocking that one out of the air too. When the sky was empty he swooped low to find the ground troops herding his people away. There was dust washing over him as he hit the ground on all fours. The soldiers and townsfolk alike panicked. He reared up and knocked Imperials aside, threw them to the ground and into each other until nobody was left to oppose him. For another minute he darted around looking for foes, but it was over.

His people were cowering, and they were short! He fell back onto all fours and stepped closer saying, "It's all right. I got them." They drew back and he frowned, his beak clacking.

Beak?

He lifted one hand and saw he had golden, bloody talons, fading into the white feathers of his arm.

Then he was falling off of Nev, out of Nev, to land on his back in the dirt. Battered and exhausted, he lay beside the griffin thinking, What did I do?

I did what I had to, he decided, and passed out.
This started out as a story concept for one of my game projects, a story-driven version of Midway's classic "Joust." You'd be riding your griffin over each car of an enemy train, battling dragons and building up power to activate your super form.
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:iconnitrinoxus:
Nitrinoxus Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I can see where the Knights of Griffin Keep came from.

If I haven't mentioned this before, you're a natural at a great many storytelling elements; it looks like combat sequences are on that list as well, because the action in this story shone.

The fusion of griffin and rider was handled beautifully, as I had expected. It was especially clever that you made the mentions of said fusion rather discreet, but still present in the midst of combat; the realization of what had happened after the adrenaline rush of fighting in mid-air had worn off was fluid and very believable.

Overall, an excellent read. Of course, that comes as no surprise in your Gallery.
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:iconkschnee:
KSchnee Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2012  Student Writer
Thanks. Lately I posted a story with no action in it (to TSA-Talk), so it's nice to be thinking about something with more action in it. Don't know why the idea of griffin/human magic fusion seems particularly cool to me.
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:iconnitrinoxus:
Nitrinoxus Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I don't know, either. I suppose it's just one of those 'it's-cool-because-well-it-just-is' sort of things, y'know?
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:iconbigchiller101:
BIGCHILLER101 Featured By Owner Mar 4, 2011
is there going to be a part 2
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:iconkschnee:
KSchnee Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2011  Student Writer
Thanks for reading! I hadn't really planned on it, though I do commissions.
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:iconbigchiller101:
BIGCHILLER101 Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2011
so wait yiu arre going to be workign on it or are you workign on it
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:iconkschnee:
KSchnee Featured By Owner Mar 5, 2011  Student Writer
I'm not working on it. If someone commissions more, I'll do it. Otherwise probably not.
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:iconstargazzer1:
stargazzer1 Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
thats AWSEOME!!!! i love it...its realy clever
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:iconkschnee:
KSchnee Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2010  Student Writer
Thank you!
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:iconstargazzer1:
stargazzer1 Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
:) your welcome
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