THE LESSON OF ALMIRAYA BAY

I looked to Trey, expecting a sarcastic word of agreement from him, but instead found him shading his eyes and staring out across the bay. “Trey? Something the matter?”

“The ships are no longer headed straight for shore,” he replied.

“What are they — wait, how many ships did they send?” I peered at the white ships with their tall, blue-black solar collectors where sails should be. There was a haze over the water, but I could still see what had riveted Trey’s gaze.

“Just two. Those other craft should not be there.” He spoke an Alvehn name to activate his link and muttered something quickly under his breath. A moment later I heard tense voices above on the low hill behind us. Trey’s Alvehn colleagues were urging the Matriarch to retreat back to the city.

Beside each Alvehn vessel was another, long and low on the water, with no sign of sails. Sid let out a yell and stepped away from us; her sword had darted up over her shoulder and she’d just barely caught it in time. At the same moment, I heard the peace bond snap open behind my neck.

The shriek of gryphon windspeak slashed through the skies above us, and I looked up in time to see half a dozen gryphons tear through the scattered white clouds like arrows. One of Slashtail’s patrols. Another half dozen were screaming across the bay from somewhere near the Fin, and then gryphons were streaming over our heads, flying swiftly toward the ships. From the windspeak I could hear, I knew they were gryphons going to war.

“Daffyd?” Sid looked at me, clearly alarmed, as she forced her sword back where it belonged.

There was a rush of wind through wings behind us. I turned, and there was Slashtail, with Firecrest just then touching down beside him. “The Alvehn ships are being attacked. Very strange. The enemy ships came up out of the waves.”

“Submersibles?” I wondered aloud.

“There’s no telling what Edren has at his disposal,” Trey pointed out.

“Come!” Slashtail shrieked. “We go to their aid.”

Sid and I were both armed and ready, thanks to the odd behavior of her weapon, and there were two gryphons. To a thoroughly vexed and unarmed Trey, I said, “Handle things here. We’ve got this.” And I climbed aboard Slashtail. In seconds we were airborne, with Sid astride Firecrest. Like me, she had added a goggle pouch to her harness, and as she leaned over the head of her companion the goggles gave her a look of fixed intensity. I had no doubt that her appearance matched what she felt in that moment.

A gryphon in a hurry can fly very fast indeed, faster when a fight draws them, and we were soon circling over the embattled ships. Two sleek, white vessels, no longer making for the harbor, sailed in an arc leading toward the cape, unable to ply straight courses due to the low-slung, soot-gray vessels grappled to them. The decks of the Alvehn ships were melees, with Alvehn and Human crews battling Moj boarders. There were more than a dozen Moj on each ship already, with more climbing up as we approached. They must have packed them in like sardines. With a single Moj being equal to several trained Human fighters, and Humans being the majority of those facing the boarders, the crews of those ships would have been doomed, had gryphons not been nearby. And gryphons were there like a swarm of gulls over a pod of whales, making quick, low passes over Alvehn and Moj ships alike, plucking up Moj as they dodged crossbow bolts. The unlucky Moj were tossed into the air, snapped up in bright yellow beaks and bitten in two.

The insanity of what I was seeing was unfathomable. I couldn’t imagine what the hell Edren hoped he could accomplish by launching such a strike force. There clearly were not enough of them, as many as there were, to overwhelm such a strong defense. Edren surely knew there were gryphons living on the Isles of Wulde.

“Get us down there,” I shouted. “The lead vessel.” The number of attackers was greatest there.

Slashtail banked, then jerked to the right as a Moj projectile hissed through the air, all too near. He touched the deck long enough for me to slide off, then lunged at the first Moj to rush us and carried the creature off. Sid was beside me a heartbeat later, and with glittering Alvehn swords in hand, and Sid’s Island war cry cutting through the screams of gryphons and the general chaos of battle, we attacked the Moj from behind. My sword flashed with its usual otherworldly light, but paled in comparison with the brilliance of her sword, reacting to real Moj. Those Moj were not taken by surprise, having seen our gryphons come in for a landing. A contingent of seven Moj troops spun about and came at us. As I engaged and then killed my first, backing across the deck to keep more than two at once from coming at me, I heard the shouts and screams of battle elsewhere on the ship. I glimpsed Sid impaling a Moj, then whirling to gut another, and spinning again to behead a third. I was glad she was on my side. Crew from the ship, most of them dark-haired Morvans, pressed the Moj from the other side. The Moj did better against ordinary foes, but the Morvan crew kept at them, trapping the Moj between us, spurred on by their Alvehn allies, who wielded swords such as my own.

The fight did not last long, with gryphons dipping up and down and scattering gory remains of our enemies over the deck and into the water. And in typical Moj fashion, the raiders fought to the end, with every one of them dying on the deck on swords or in a gryphon’s talons. But by then, far too many Morvans and Alvehn were dead or dying on that same deck, and a lifeless gryphon floated on the waters of Almiraya Bay.

As the last Moj fell on our ship, a thunderous gurgling and hissing overwhelmed the sudden stillness that always seems to follow a battle, in that moment before the scream of pain gets through your adrenalin rush. Sid and I ran to the railing and peered over the side, goggles protecting our eyes from the fountain of spray that washed over us, soaking us to the skin. Where the submersible had been we saw only a crashing aquatic chaos. Dead Moj bobbed around in the water, then sank out of sight beneath the waves as the water settled down.

They escaped,” Sid snarled in frustration.

“No,” I said. “They scuttled that boat. Damn. Moj don’t commit suicide just because they know they can’t win. They fight until no one is left, like the ones we faced on this deck, unless ordered to do otherwise.” I looked to the other Alvehn ship in time to see the remaining half dozen Moj there driven into the bow, then swept over the railing and into the water by a trio of gryphons who roared through them like a storm of wings. As the last one plunged, the crew of the ship raised a cheer. “That’s more typical. Standing even against gryphons.”

Another fountain of spray rose into the air and the other sub disappeared into the blue waters.

“What the hell is going on here?” I demanded of no one in particular. Something wasn’t adding up, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Even with the enemy dispatched, the air was full of shouted commands, cries of pain, and the windspeak of gryphons. By then, a considerable part of the Island gryphon population was circling above the scene. We sheathed our swords and did what we could to help the crew deal with their wounded, all of whom, Human and Alvehn, were spirited away into the ship, to the Alvehn medical bay it surely carried. We left them to it, knowing there was no better medical care to be found anywhere on Adrathea. Those who had died fighting were also carried below, to be prepared for burial at sea. Gryphons rose and fell from the decks of the ships, plucking up Moj carcasses and carrying them off for unceremonious disposal in deeper, shark-infested waters. The Alvehn ships corrected their courses and headed once more for the harbor. The gryphon we lost had slipped beneath the waves, beyond recovery.

“Hope they drop them far enough out,” I said. “It wouldn’t do to have one of these bastards wash up on the beach. Our guests would find that disturbing, I’m sure.”

“The currents out there will do what’s needed,” Sid assured me. “And this time of year, the sharks are especially hungry — it’s their breeding season. Daffyd, what did they hope to accomplish by this?”

“I’m baffled,” I replied with a shrug. “We don’t even have anything up from the wreck worth stealing yet, according to Trey.”

“Might they have misjudged their timing?” Sid asked.

“I suppose that’s possible, since he’d be making a best guess based on rumors.” I stared up at the gryphons, still hauling Moj bodies out to sea. The gryphons who, in recent years, had taken to patrolling the shoreline. They would resume that activity, I knew, as soon as Slashtail believed the situation was stable. “But — no, Edren is too smart to make such a mistake. He keeps himself up to date. Trey and his people have been tearing up networks of spies and spy gear on the mainland since I cut the bastard’s head off. And yet he still…” The number of gryphons suddenly gave me pause. They really were all in the air over the bay, circling, shouting, clearly upset by the death of one of their own. It finally clicked, then. “Oh, hell no!”

“What?” Sid turned abruptly toward me.

“The only thing they came to take was our attention.”

Sid gasped as it became clear to her. “God and Goddess, save us!”

I was already whistling and waving frantically, and in moments Slashtail circled back and landed with a short skid on the slippery deck. “Slashtail, forget the dead Moj.          We need wings with eyes up and down the coast, now, looking for signs of a landing party.”

The gryphon flinched back in surprise. “We are fools!” he shrieked. Then, after a venomous hiss, he said, “This was a diversion.”

“Almost certainly,” I said.

Posted August 19, 2022 by underdesertstars

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