The creature pulled the rest of itself onto the ledge, spreading out a pair of wings into the air that were almost as wide across as our battering ram was long. Its body was sleek and lithe, feathered all the way down the back and onto its long, sinuous tail. One of the stones over the gate cracked as it tightened its grip on the parapet, shifting forward as it looked out and down at our front line.
“If it…” Sir Bliss stammered, “if they made it by magic, the aura will keep it away from us.” He glanced over at me. “Right?”
I stared at the monster, speechless, almost transfixed. As it lowered its head down below the edge of the wall, I could see that the beast had a rider. A sidhe in what looked like some sort of elaborate ceremonial robe sat astride the griffon’s shoulders, his legs hooked over the base of the griffon’s wings. In his hand, the sidhe held a short black rod with some sort of orb at one end, a sphere with a pale blue surface that seemed to shift subtly as the sidhe waved it in our direction.
There was a flash of light from the end of the rod, and half a dozen bright blue points shot out of the orb, shooting up into the sky for a moment before arcing toward us. I gritted my teeth, worried for a moment that our shield would prove ineffective, but twenty paces away from our front line the lights winked out, vanishing entirely and leaving no trace of their former presence but a few barely-audible popping sounds.
A few of the men in the formation cheered as the projectiles disappeared, and I felt Sir Bliss pull his cart handle forward a little. “Right,” he said under his breath, and then he began shouting orders to the unit. “All right, lads, no need to worry, they’ve only a one-man cavalry and we’ve got philosophy on our side! All ranks, lower spears! All together with the ram, advance!”
There was a certain amount of hesitation, but after a moment the battering ram lurched forward, and the rest of the men started to advance with it. Across the unit, the other knights started calling out commands to their men, and I could hear Bat cajoling the men on the battering ram, egging them on to push harder and faster.
The griffon raised its wings again, and then hopped down off of the wall, unhurried, almost lazily. The sidhe thrust the rod in his hand forward again, firing off another barrage of lights that flew forward barely an instant before dissolving in another series of pops.
“The aura will be on it in a moment,” Bliss said. “Then we’ll know for sure.”
The monster took a step toward our advancing front line, and then a second, more tentative step. The rider shouted a command to the beast, something in a language I didn’t recognize, but the griffon seemed not to respond. As we pushed forward, it pulled back its head, moving it side-to-side like a goat trying to pull free of a harness.
“Don’t much like that, do you?” Bliss looked over at me again. Now, his voice held a kind of grim pleasure. “Let’s push, push now, catch it in the aura before it can climb back up the wall. I want to see the look on that fox-face’s face when his mount disappears under him.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and we increased our pace again, walking the cart forward as fast as we could without breaking into a run, coming right up to the back end of the battering ram. Behind us, Ceyx muttered a little curse as he struggled to both keep the staff aloft and keep his footing in the muddy slush.
The griffon began moving backward in a series of short hops, a flap of its wings helping to push it back with each jump. I could feel a puff of wind on my face with each flap of the beast’s wings; belatedly, I realized my helm was still in the cart behind me, where I’d tucked it away among the current cells during the march. The sidhe shouted more commands at the griffon, short sharp syllables, each angrier than the last, but the beast now seemed to be ignoring him entirely, jumping and scrabbling back until its haunches touched the wall behind it.
The beast reared back, pressing its back against the wall as it let out a shrill, inhuman shriek. The sidhe stuffed the rod into the front of his robe, and even from this distance I could see that he could feel the effect of the aura just as Irandrya had; the little Fae pressed one hand to his forehead even as he struggled to hold on to his mount’s feathered neck with the other, and he closed his eyes tightly, grimacing like a man trying to stare down the sun.
“Now pop, you bastard.” I could hear Sir Bliss’ gritted teeth even through his helmet. “Pop like the soap bubble you are.”
The griffon lashed its head from one side to the other, letting out another cry, reaching back to scrape the wooden gate with one of its forelegs but finding no purchase. It pressed itself against the wood, curling down into a tight ball, pulling its wings in to press them against its sides.
And then, in a single, explosive motion, the griffon leapt forward toward us, screaming like the hunting cry of a thousand eagles.
I heard Bliss gasp. “No.”
The beast came at us in a leaping, galloping charge, crossing the distance between the wall and our front line almost before I knew for certain what was happening. On its third leap, just before it reached the tips of the forward spears, it unfurled its wings again and flapped them down hard, launching itself into the air above the spearmen. For a moment, just a moment, the creature seemed to hang there, suspended in the air above us, and then it smashed down into our formation, talons first.
Men dove and scattered back away from the monster as it savaged the soldiers it had landed on. My view of the ground below it was mercifully blocked by the back end of the battering ram, but I could hear mens’ screams and tearing sounds as the griffon raked its claws across the earth below it like a dog digging a hole. The beast’s head darted down, the beak drawing another cry of pain from below the creature as it snapped shut, and then it pulled it back and upwards in a series of quick jerks, each one punctuated by a gurgling scream until it finally pulled its prize free with a sickening wet pop. A man’s leg hung from the beast’s mouth, covered in slick dark blood and muddy slush, still booted up to the middle of the raggedly torn thigh. Inside the monster’s beak I could now see that there were teeth, needle thin and numerous.
I dropped the cart handle, and stumbled back away from the creature, bumping into Sir Bliss with my back. He, too, had dropped the handle of the cart, but he held his longsword in his right hand, and he gripped my shoulder with his left. “Mason,” he shouted, “we have to-”
The monster whipped its head back and forth, spraying the men surrounding it with blood and filth, and then released the leg with a final shake, throwing it out over the men to land among the thin line of archers at the back of the crumbling formation. The griffon’s body tensed again, and then it leapt once more, bowling over the few men that remained standing near it with a gust of wind as it brought its wings down.
The leap carried the beast almost straight toward me and Bliss; its talons splintered wood and cut through ropes as it briefly landed atop the battering ram, and then it pushed off of the thick log and jumped again, the whole ram tilting to one side and then crashing down to the ground as wheels folded and axles shattered under the added strain.
Bliss shoved me roughly forward, bearing me to the ground under him as the griffon leapt over us. I hit the ground hard, the wind knocked out of me as I slapped down into the slushy mud. As I landed, I felt a shock of pain in the side of my gut and felt the cloth rip on the right side of my armored coat. Behind me, I could hear a crashing sound, wood snapping and clay shattering.
I rolled onto my back, struggling to suck in a breath as I lifted my head to look. The creature stood in the wreckage of the aura cart, surrounded by shattered boards and broken pottery and snapped wires. Smoke or steam boiled from the broken jars and the ground around them and from the griffon’s feet as well; it seemed to be dancing from foot to foot as though touching the ground was painful, each footfall shattering another jar or smashing flat one of the cylinders of dark lead that had been within them, coating more of the ground with the liquid that had filled the cells.
Sir Bliss was already on his feet again, sword in one hand and dagger in the other, and he charged forward toward the beast, slashing at the monster’s flank. The creature leapt away at the touch of the sword, spinning to face Sir Bliss, letting out another shrieking cry.
For a moment, Bliss and the monster stared each other down. Bliss moved slowly to the side, occasionally feinting one way or another, watching the griffon’s movements as it stared him down with those gold-ringed eyes the size of a man’s head. And then, his senses recovered now that the aura cart was destroyed, the griffon’s rider pulled the rod back out of his robe, pointed it at Sir Bliss, and spoke a single sharp syllable.
Lights blossomed out from the tip of the rod and then shot forward, each striking Sir Bliss directly in the chest, impacting with a sound like a man slapping a wet piece of meat. The blades dropped from his hands, the dagger sticking upright in the earth as sword clattered onto its side, and then, slowly, first to his knees and then limply onto his belly, Bliss fell.
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