ABBARR: Ashes and Wings


Esha heard rumors that Tkharod was the organizer of some of the most brutal “games” on the Great Arena. They always ended with the death of one of the participants. The winner was allowed to devour the loser. The fighters weren’t given any other food. Regardless whether it was monsters fighting or gladiators, conditions were equal for everyone. However, the Allaty and the Beasts also received their pay as a reward, and slaves could earn their freedom. But for animals there was only one way to freedom – death.

Esha caught the gaze of the amber eye and looked away, unable to peer into the abyss.
Inside the Elwing girl a wave of rage was rising. It seemed the animals felt her hardly restrained anger and fell silent, hiding deeper in their cages. The gallery became unusually quiet. And the griffin still lay motionless – just heavy breathing, spasms of pain, and a blazing eye.

“You know, griffins cannot participate in the Arena battles.”
“Nor can they be a subject of trade,” the Beast grinned.

Tkharod spat on his fingers – a traditional merchant gesture for the money to “stick in” – and wrote the bill of sale reluctantly. He glanced at the Elwing girl, giving her a crooked grin, and put a personal seal on the deal. He then handed her the document and, looking into the Elwing’s eyes, spat out in disdain:

“This thing will die soon anyway. He is too skinny.”
“We will all die anyway,” Esha smiled wickedly and, grabbing the receipt, tossed him the ruby and turned to the cage.

Tkharod nearly fell down, trying to catch the precious gem, and, having hidden the coveted treasure under his belt, he shouted:

“By the way, two more ‘dragons’ are due, for the cage and chains with a collar.”
“I won’t be needing these,” the Elwing girl responded calmly, easily picking the lock with a masterkey.
The door creaked, and Esha sank down by the griffin’s muzzle.
“Let’s go. You don’t have to fight anymore.”

The organizer and his servants backed away. The stone Beasts held their axes ready, but also retreated a couple steps.

“You’ve lost your marbles completely, Djinn take you!” Tkharod yelled.

Esha paid no attention to the great organizer’s screams. She was focused on the beast before her. The Elwing girl knew the griffin had heard her. Esha reached out to him. The beast snarled, baring his fangs, and rose a bit.

“There-there. Calm down, I’m not your enemy. Maybe not a friend yet, but definitely not an enemy.”

His hackle feathers were still raised, but the growling grew quieter, turning into dull grunting.

Esha carefully unfastened the shackles on his paws, then reached out for his neck. The griffin lowered his head slightly, watching her warily with his orange eye. His feathers, fur, blood – everything was matted and glued together in a mush, covered by a thick crust of dirt. Here and there bald spots of scars showed up, cuts and festering not yet healed traces of his fights… Today’s battle, indeed, would have been his last. Touching the beast, Esha sensed his thoughts. His weariness. He was tired of killing. Today he was ready to die. He was angry with the hope of freedom which showed up out of nowhere. The Elwing girl sensed his wariness, his distrust. But somewhere deep, deep inside she also felt a faint impulse of light amidst the darkness of his despair – his wish to believe her.
And this time Esha peered into the amber abyss, and did not look away, only smiled, mentally extending a helping hand.
The griffin stiffened and rose, staggering, then shook his head. The unfastened collar clanged, falling onto the floor.

“Heeey, what do you think you’re doing!” Tkharod jumped back. Such swiftness was truly amazing, taking into account his complexity.
“Taking my property,” Esha growled. “Any objections?”

The Elwing girl pulled a leather cord from her pocket, adorned with white feathers and purple stone beads – exactly like the one that was braided in her own hair. She tied the cord to the griffin’s horn so it could be seen, therefore securing her right of ownership, warning off those who might dare to claim her “property”.

“It’s necessary. Trust me.”

The griffin paused, then took a careful step out of his cage, held his muzzle close to the girl’s face and sniffed. The Elwing smiled.

“Now let’s go,” Esha said, putting her hand on the griffin’s beak, and added mentally: “Don’t show them your fear. This city never forgives one’s weakness.”
Esha turned around and took a few steps toward the merchant, who was taken aback. She took off her glove and extended her hand.
“Thank you for the deal.”

The organizer patted his belt, where the gem was hidden, and grinned, accepting a handshake.

“Fly in again, Ashwing, with your rubies and ‘dragons’.”

But as soon as the Beast touched the Elwing’s delicate hand, his face was distorted by pure horror. His fishy eyes bulged out, as he stared at Esha, unable to utter a word. He tried to pull his hand out, but could not. His own body didn’t obey him, and his mind frantically thrashed in a cage of helplessness. The girl looked into his eyes and smiled. Her eyes were burning with purple fire.

“Remember, my name is Ashry of Poogaton,” the girl whispered in his ear. “And I will show you the Abyss.”

A couple of moments, and the Elwing let go of the Beast. Tkharod recoiled, pressed his hand to his chest, as if he had just touched a kiln. The Elwing girl buttoned her glove and headed for the exit, calling out to the griffin to follow, both with a gesture and with her thought.
As she was leaving, Esha was still smiling. She knew that from now on, whenever Tkharod would close his eyes, he would see his worse nightmares embodied. A nightmare where his beasts lacerated him on the Arena. Although, even with his eyes open, he’d always stay in his nightmare. Neither wine, nor potions, nor caresses of his favorite concubines would help. The Abyss’ Handshake was what made Ashwing a legend – the Raven’s White Hand. But few knew how it worked, until they actually became acquainted with it.
The griffin and the girl walked past the great organizer, crouched in fear, past his bodyguards, past the owners of living killing machines and the blood-thirsty spectators. The Elwing and the kai-reen paid no attention to the fear of the crowd.
Esha sensed the difficulty with which the griffin was taking every step. But she knew he was walking with his head high, and she could only believe in his strength. The beast was walking forth despite his weakness.
Slowly they were moving forth through the crowd of onlookers. A hot afternoon wind played with the white strand of Elwing’s hair and the snow-white feathers adorning the cord tied to the griffin’s horn. These feathers belonged to an ashwing of the Archipelago – a small but tenacious bird of the Free Islands. Legends had it, these birdies were born from the ashes of last hope, when the Abyss was so close they couldn’t fly out to the light without staining their tails with ashes of darkness.




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ABBARR: Ashes and Wings