The gryphons were not always monsters. That came later.
In the earliest days, they were our friends. They flew alongside pegasi. They shared the land with earth ponies. They studied beside unicorns. There was no fear between us. That too came later.
Time drew our people apart, but it was not time that made them monsters. They made that choice themselves; they chose their fate.
And it was the greatest gryphon who sealed it. He was born, many years ago, on a mountain far to the north...
His first memories were of the vast, cold, empty halls of his tribe's mountain home.
The mountain sat on the southern edge of a massive glacier, large enough to be seen from the moon. The White Ocean, as his tribe called it, covered the northern quarter of the Equestrian continent. In its heart, hundreds of leagues to the north of the last tree, entire mountains rose from the ocean floor, never to come within miles of breaking through to the surface, so thick was the ice. Snow that fell thousands of years ago still drifted across its frozen expanses like the ghosts of storms and ages past.
Whether gryphons had always lived in the northern mountains, or whether circumstance had driven them there, was lost to history. In their oldest lore the gryphons sometimes sang of living in trees and snatching fish from flowing streams. Only later, in songs tinged with war and blood, did they sing of mountains and snow and winters that never ended.
In time, they stopped singing at all.
Like most fledglings, Aquilas cared little for history or geography; he focused on the here and now. Here, his tribe's vast and cold and empty halls. Now, playing with his sister, the only other soul around.
They were not truly alone. In the distance, Aquilas could hear the faint clamor of other gryphons fighting or playing. Among gryphons, there was little difference between the two—blood was often spilled in both.
He and Corva never spilled each others' blood, no matter how rough they played. When they tussled, it was always tempered by that rarest of emotions among their kind.
Corva was both his younger and older sister. Laid first, but hatched a few minutes after. She was a little more patient in being born, their mother said. Patience was another rare trait among the gryphons.
A trait he both envied and despised, at that moment. He chirped quietly, then opened his beak to call out into the empty hall. “Corva! I see you!”
It was a lie. She was an expert at hide-and-go-seek, and he could never find her after night fell across the mountains. Her dusky feathers and dark gray coat blended smoothly with the evening shadows and rough rock walls of the aerie. A giggle, high and faint and fleeting, was the only hint she gave him.
He had already checked all the usual spots: behind the throne, in the storage room, between the benches in the great hall. The shadowed rafters were dusty and empty as always. With a grumble, he spread his wings and coasted back to the floor.
“Corva!” he tried again. Nothing. She could be napping in the nursery for all he knew. It was clear why this was her favorite game—she never lost. Next time, he promised himself, they would play something different. He turned to the door, ready to leave the great hall to its emptiness and ghosts, when a familiar shape caught his eye.
Carved centuries ago, the bas relief stretched across an entire wall, filled with dozens of flying, cavorting, hunting and dancing gryphons and other creatures. He must have seen the sculpture dozens of times, but only now was he truly seeing it, understanding it as a story frozen in stone.
He sat in the empty hall and stared. The sculpture and its tale, though faint and worn down by the centuries, were still legible to whomever cared to read them. Gryphons, dragons, serpents and ponies all stood frozen in the stone. Each carving led to another, back and forth across the wall, and he lost himself in their flow. He was so immersed that it was hardly even a challenge for his sister to sneak up and tackle him.
“Gotcha!” she cried after they tumbled to a halt. He squawked in surprise, then snapped his beak shut before he could embarrass himself any further.
“Too easy,” she added with what passed for a smile. She held him down effortlessly—already she weighed more than him, as gryphon females usually did. After another few moments of struggle, she flapped her wings and jumped away to let him stand. As he did, she turned to the wall and the bas relief that had entranced him.
“What were you looking at, anyway?” she asked. “It's just a wall.”
He flapped his wings a few times to settle his bristled feathers. “It's not just a wall. There's pictures carved on it.”
Corva glanced at the wall. “Oh, those. What about them? They've always been there.”
“What are they? Who made them?”
She shrugged. “Who cares?” When he frowned, she laughed and began preening his feathers with her beak to help soothe them back into position. “It's just art, Aquilas. Nothing important.”
He tried to scowl, but the preening had its intended effect. His nerves calmed, his tail stopped its spastic twitching and his feathers slowly flattened against his body. “They must be important. How long do you think it took to make it?”
She shrugged again. “I dunno. Weeks?”
Years. He was certain. Whoever had carved the wall had made it their life's work. He frowned at the sculptures. The more he looked, the more hidden details he saw. A mocking expression on a gryphon's face or defiance carved in the stance of a pegasus locked in a duel with a dragon. The very grain of the stone had been enlisted in the texture of the warring tribes.
“If you're that curious, ask father,” his sister finally said. “He knows everything about the aerie.”
Weeks passed before Aquilas found a chance to speak with his father.
Regalan had been out hunting on the fringes of the glacier. When he finally returned with his troop of hunters, they carried enough game to restock their larders for another month. In the cold of the aerie, the meat would stay fresh forever.
Regalan's chest was still smeared with blood when Aquilas found him. The blood would remain there for a while; like most adult gryphons, Regalan refused to clean away the evidence of his victories. The lifeblood of the seals and other animals he had slain was warpaint, a tangible, physical sign of his prowess as a hunter. The crimson stains against his father's bright white plumage were the brightest color Aquilas had seen in the aerie in quite some time.
“Father,” he said, his head tilted low and to the side in a show of deference. “Welcome home.”
Regalan grunted around the haunch of meat between his jaws. Tatters of flesh hung in flaps from his beak and claws as he tore into a caribou's flayed leg. His eyes flicked briefly to Aquilas, then back to his meal.
Aquilas took that as permission to continue. “I was in the great hall with Corva while you were gone. I noticed that one of the walls is covered in carvings.” He paused to let his father swallow a particularly large scrap.
“Mm, I know the one you mean,” his father said once his mouth was free. “What of it?”
A second passed before Aquilas answered. He had expected his father to say more. “Why is it there? Who made it?”
Regalan took another bite from the leg, stripping the last bits of flesh away from the bone. “It doesn't matter who made it. Some dead gryphon or other,” he said after swallowing the meat whole. “There used to be gryphons who cared about such things. They spent their lives carving stone or painting or writing poems. Useless things.”
Unfamiliar words. Painting? Poems? Aquilas knew their meaning but struggled to imagine that a gryphon would dedicate their lives to such things. “Why?” he blurted, still lost in thought.
Regalan laughed around the bone. It splintered in his beak, and he sucked the marrow from it like butter. “Because they were weak, son. Weak.”
“Weak?” The gryphon artist who carved the wall had remade stone to match his vision.
“Yes, weak. There were more gryphons back then, and not all could be warriors or hunters. Instead they found other... distractions. Idle amusements.”
Aquilas turned his head. They were in one of the aerie's smaller rooms, but it dwarfed the two gryphons like they were ants. Outside, the hallway led to hundreds of other such rooms, any of which could hold the tribe's entire population. He realized, for the first time, that the aerie was a ghost town.
“Where... where did they all go?”
“They were weak. They died.” His father spoke the words as though they were obvious, an equation dictated by nature itself: for as the sun rises in the east, and as water flows downhill, so too must the weak die. That said, he tossed the broken remains of the leg off the balcony, where it joined countless others on the bone-littered slope below.
“But the tribe...” He couldn't imagine the aerie full of gryphons. Had there ever been enough to crowd its chambers? Had they ever filled its halls with their scents and sounds?
“The tribe is stronger, now.” His father frowned at him. “Listen, Aquilas. When my grandfather was a chick, the aerie still had a blacksmith. Do you know what a blacksmith was?”
“Of course... they made nails, right?”
His father chuckled. “More than that. Blacksmiths lasted longer than poets because they made weapons, Aqulias. They made metal, and when a blacksmith sought to make iron, he started with raw ore. He might have needed ten pounds of ore for every pound of iron he made. The rest was dross. Worthless. Boiled away in the heat of the blacksmith's forge until only pure, strong metal remains. Everything that is weak is cast aside.” Regalan made a flicking motion with the tips of his wings, as though brushing away the rain.
“That is how we are,” Regalan continued. “Yes, the tribe is smaller, but we are the iron that remains after the forge grows cold. The dross — the art, the poems, the books, even the blacksmith himself — they are all gone, because we have no need for them. We are warriors and hunters. That is our nature, Aquilas. We are as pure and untainted as the gods intended us to be, when first they lit their forge.”
Aquilas imagined the unknown sculptor shaping the wall. “Is that our nature? To be warriors? Hunters? Nothing else?”
“Look at yourself,” his father said. “Every part of you is designed to kill. Your eyes can see prey hiding miles below. Your beak can sever spines. Your claws are like knives. You are a predator, Aquilas. A carnivore. It is our nature to kill. Not to make art.”
“No buts. You and Corva are old enough to join our hunts. You will understand. When you make your first kill, you will understand.”
Two weeks later, Aquilas and Corva were a thousand feet above the glacier, wings wide and fixed as they rode the weak thermals that rose from the reflective ice. Countless black dots littered the snow beneath them, each one a seal migrating across the southern tip of the White Ocean to reach their summer spawning grounds along the coast. It was a dangerous voyage for the seals; the cold, the lack of food, and predators all exacted their toll before they could reach the safety of the open water.
Of the predators, none were so fearsome as the gryphons. He and Corva brushed feathers and then folded their wings, falling toward the ice like shooting stars.
They could have teamed up for their first seal. It would have been safer, and even a small seal had more than enough meat on its bones to fill both their stomachs for a week. There was no urgent need for them to both make a kill.
But they both wanted to kill.
They angled their dives at the last second, swooping just a few feet above the snowy surface of the glacier and sending fountains of powder blowing off to either side. They were so fast the seals barely had a chance to register their presence before they struck.
Corva's strike was flawless. Her target, a mature seal that had fallen behind the rest of the pack, didn't even look up before she swept above it, her talons extended to slice through its neck. The seal stumbled to the ice, a jet of bright blood arcing out onto the snow.
Aquilas was less fortunate. His strike was off by inches, and instead of severing an artery or the spine, his talons merely sliced through the thick blubber. The blow knocked the seal to the ground and sent it tumbling across the glacier.
Not perfect, but not hopeless either. Aquilas flared his wings and circled back toward his prey. The wounded seal struggled back onto its flippers moments before Aquilas landed. Seen from the ground, the seal was larger than he expected, nearly as tall and probably twice as heavy as an adult gryphon. Even covered in its own blood, it was imposing.
Interesting facts, but unimportant. Negligible. His beak opened in a piercing scream that sent the pack stampeding away, and he leapt toward the wounded seal, his claws outstretched as though reaching for a prize.
It is our nature.
It was his first kill, and he was clumsy; it took a dozen slashes from his claws before the seal finally died. An ocean of blood painted the white snow around him a brilliant scarlet. He was burning hot, and only slowly became aware that he was splattered with gore. Steam rose in waves from his pelt and feathers.
Corva trundled over to him, dragging her seal by its flippers. A swath of blood colored her path. She looked at him, at his painted body, gaping beak and wide eyes, and she began to giggle. The sound built until she doubled over with laughter, one claw pointed at him while grasping at her stomach with the other.
Her laughter was infectious. The frenzy of violence slowly faded from his mind; his heart calmed to its normal pace. The blood coating his feathers began to cool and thicken, and he began to laugh as well.
He had never felt so alive. And the seal was delicious.
Years passed in their aerie home. As his father had predicted, Aquilas became a skilled hunter, a predator like the gods intended when first they lit their forge. He lost count of the seals who died in his claws. Each kill was different, but in his mind they blended together until the memory of each day was a never-ending string of blood and snow, the taste of hot iron on his tongue and the feel of his claws piercing thick hide into the soft, soft, blubber underneath.
It was his nature to kill, and he killed. It was prey's nature to die, and it died. What else could a gryphon or seal or god or beast want from its life, other than to fulfill its nature?
In time, he became known as one of the greatest hunters. With every kill he grew quicker, deadlier, more fluid with his strikes and more sure with his aim. He harvested seals like a farmer harvests grain.
When the seals ceased to provide any thrill, he began hunting walruses. Larger, dangerous. He learned to respect their tusks, and in time they too became easy victims for his claws. The younger gryphons begged to follow him on hunts.
Only one other predator on the glacier could hunt walruses. The polar bears were a dozen times his size, with claws as sharp and large as his own. They feared nothing; to them, he was the prey. The first time he dared test his skills against one, the bear lived, and he nearly died. It was months before his wings mended enough for him to fly again.
The second time, he brought back its head.
His father had been right. They were the greatest hunters. The dross had burned away.
And then, one day, the ponies came.
There was a commotion in the great hall when Aquilas woke.
At least a dozen griffons had gathered, and their voices blended into a chorus of screeches and squawks that echoed down the empty hallways of the aerie. It had been months since so many of them had crowded into one room. They gathered in a rough circle around Regalan's throne, but their attention was not on the chair but the high stone wall behind it.
Tacked to the wall with a set of iron nails was a pelt.
Gryphons were not natural skinners. Their claws were meant for piercing and tearing rather than cutting. As such, the pelt was in poor shape; much of it was simply missing, and what remained on the wall barely resembled any animal he knew. Its coat was of dense, short hairs the color of sunlight, except where a longer orange mane emerged like the tuft on a gryphon's tail. A single wing, tattered and half-plucked, hung from the lower edge of the pelt like a flag. Bright blood smeared the margins of the skin and ran in thin lines down the stone wall.
It was the most colorful thing he had ever seen.
“Isn't it something?” a soft voice said beside him. His sister leaned over and ran her beak through the feathers beneath his ear tuft in a quick greeting. “Goshawk found it in a valley a few miles south of here. You'd think he'd laid an egg.” She chuckled quietly at a wiry gryphon standing beneath the pelt, his wings and arms gesturing wildly as he spoke to a small group gathered around him. A new set of blood stains decorated his chest and neck.
“He found a pelt? What is it?” Aquilas asked. He had barely looked at Goshawk before his eyes were drawn back to the skin. It was like staring into the sunset.
She laughed again, louder this time. “No, silly. It's a pony. He found a pony.”
He tilted his head sideways for a better perspective. The pelt was hanging upside down, with the nails driven through the legs about where the pony's claws—no, hooves—would have been. Some odd design, like the blossom on a mountain cornflower, appeared to be tattooed on its flank. He could barely make it out beneath the blood.
“What was it doing?” The nearest pony city was dozens of leagues to the south, and besides, ponies had no use for mountains. They were plant eaters.
Corva shrugged. “Just flying around, apparently. Like it was looking for something.”
He tried to imagine how such a creature would look in life. So bright, like a candle's flame escaped from its wick and taken flight. For a moment it appeared in his mind's eye, gloriously alive, and then it was gone, nothing but an empty skin hanging like a banner fluttering against the cold stone wall. Even in death it was livelier than their home.
It was beautiful. The word eluded him for a moment, so rarely was it used by gryphons, but even in tatters it was beautiful. Beautiful like waves breaking into mist against the shore, or the fleeting sparkle of stars upon the snow, all beyond words. “Beautiful,” he whispered.
“Hm, if you say so.” Corva tilted her head to match his, peered at the pelt for another moment, and then shrugged. “He should've brought more of it home, though.”
Now there was a thought. He pulled his gaze away from the pelt. “Do you think there are any more out there?”
The snow in the high mountain passes had already begun to melt with the spring before Aquilas and Goshawk made their flight south. Aquilas gave Goshawk a few days to gloat over his kill before asking if the younger gryphon could show him where he found the pony. By then the thrill of such an unusual trophy had started to fade, and Goshawk was ready to try again.
“How much further?” he called, his voice struggling to reach Goshawk over the loud winds of their flight. They had already flown many more leagues than he expected. The valleys below them were broad, filled with rivers and forests. The trees were still bare, but here and there stands of pines painted dark green swathes across the earth. The gryphons made good time, and soon they would be out of the mountains entirely.
Goshawk tucked his wings, floating a bit closer. “Just ahead. It was in the foothills. Flying above them, I mean.”
Aquilas peered down. A few lonely clouds floated between them and the earth, casting dark shadows on the valley floor. Sunlight sparkled off the river running down the middle of the valley. Even from thousands of feet above the ground, he could see veiled fish swimming beneath the water's troubled surface.
A bright blue dot caught his attention. It darted over the forest, just above the treetops, and vanished beneath a cloud. A moment later, it reappeared on the far side, doubled back, and landed atop the cloud. Just sitting there.
He didn't have to think. Instincts took over, and his wings folded against his sides to dive toward his prey. Some sixth sense, a complementary awareness, told him that Goshawk had done the same. They fell together, arrows aimed at their quarry's heart.
Something must have tipped the pony off. Before they were within a thousand feet of the cloud, it looked up, then dove into the empty air below, its wings flapping so hard they vanished into a blur. The chase began.
It shouldn't have been much of a contest. The two gryphons were faster than the pegasus, and besides, there were two of them. Hunting in pairs was like cheating—too easy. Aquilas felt a vicious grin stretch across his face as they drew closer to the pony.
And just like that, it was gone. Somehow it turned in mid-air, impossibly fast, and took off at a right angle to its previous course. Both gryphons shot past it, barely even beginning to turn. Aquilas craned his head around in bewilderment.
“Yeah, they're nimble,” Goshawk yelled. He was already flapping furiously, trying to stop and turn. “Don't ask me how. Those wings shouldn't even be able to hold it up.”
Well, that just made it more fun. Aquilas felt the grin returning. “Split up,” he said, and folded his wings in another dive. He needed speed for this part.
The pony was racing south, toward the entrance of the valley. Beyond, the mountains rolled to a stop, and the earth seemed to stretch out forever. Goshawk flew a few hundred yards behind the pony, slowly closing the distance. Again, the pony turned, and Goshawk shot past it.
Easy enough. Aquilas started his run as Goshawk came around for a third pass. The pony didn't seem to notice that one of the gryphons was missing. It waited until Goshawk closed, then turned again, its hooves planting in mid-air and seeming to push away from an invisible surface. Almost like magic.
It wasn't magic enough to escape. Aquilas crossed just behind Goshawk, in line with the pony's new vector. Its eyes—a bright emerald—widened in panic, and it started to turn. It was, by then, already too late.
Aquilas dipped his wing as he passed and reached out, claws extended. He felt them catch onto something and tug, and then he was past the pony, soaring through empty air again. A few traces of blood stuck to his talons as he pulled them back, speckling his coat as the wind turned them into spray. He heard a quiet cry from below and turned to see the pony plummeting to the ground. It vanished into the trees with a crash.
The familiar rush of a kill flooded his chest. Far more than when he had killed his first seal, the predator's heart hammering in his chest exulted in its victory. Uncontrolled, his beak opened wide, and a piercing cry shattered the quiet of the valley.
He met Goshawk on the ground near the river. The pony had fallen in the forest somewhere to the west. He could smell its blood in the air.
“Nice,” Goshawk said. His feathers were still fluffed with excitement, and his pupils were tiny black dots almost lost in their golden irises. Victory was a contagious emotion for gryphons.
The killer's grin still stretched across Aquilas's beak; his blood still sang with the memory of the kill. “Yes, it was,” he said. His wings strained at their joints, an unconscious reaction to the excitement of the moment. His father's words had never seemed so true.
They took separates trail through the woods in search of the pony. The underbrush had already started to thicken with the advent of Spring, and tiny brambles and briars tugged at his coat. He tore through them with ease, leaving a trail of loose feathers behind him. It was annoying, but worth it to find his kill.
The corpse was already cooling when he stumbled upon it. The pony's body was leaning against a small sapling that bent nearly double under the pony's weight. Blood smeared the tree's pale bark.
A pair of thin crimson lines marred the pony's coat, crossing its neck just behind its ear. A clean cut through the jugular. One of his better kills by that merit alone. To have taken such cunning prey in mid-air... A second rush of endorphins flooded his body and set his feathers on end. This is joy!
A quiet sound, the rustle of wet leaves, caught his ear, breaking him from his reverie. He turned, claws raised and ready to strike.
It was a second pony. Smaller and light pink, like the inside of a shell. Its tiny wings rose in fear as it saw the gryphon, and then fell limp against its trembling sides. After a moment of staring up at him with shocked blue eyes it fell to the ground. Its mouth opened, perhaps to scream, but only a gasping breath emerged. Terrified. It was terrified of him.
He took a step forward, curious. The little thing was clearly no danger to him, and was too frightened to even try and escape. He bent down to inspect it, his beak just inches away from its warm, soft, vulnerable body.
The pony flinched back. Its lips trembled as though trying to speak.
“Hey, you found another one.” The voice startled him, and a moment later Goshawk crashed through the underbrush. “Now I get one too.”
“I think it's a fledgling,” Aquilas said. What an odd thing to say. Who cares what it is? Prey is prey. He frowned and turned back to the pony, which was looking between them frantically.
“Well, a small pelt is better than none.” Goshawk tossed him a grin, then stepped toward the fledgling, his claws reaching out to grasp it and spill its lifeblood onto the ground.
The pony jerked back a few inches. Its eyes were filled with horror. Not at all like a seal. Those dumb beasts knew panic, yes, and even fear, but never the utter terror that he saw in these eyes. Never the intelligence that this little thing showed. Just as Goshawk's claws touched its throat, its lips moved again.
“P-please,” it said. The word spilled out of its mouth in pieces, barely audible even in the quiet of the forest. “Please don't k-kill me,” it continued, louder.
“It can talk?” Aquilas said. Stupid question. Of course ponies could talk — they built cities and fought wars. But it was one thing to know something academically, and quite another to hear your prey, nothing more to you than a seal, suddenly start speaking.
“Neat,” Goshawk said, the surprised expression on his face a faint mirror of the shock Aquilas felt. His claws drew back as he considered the curious, talking meat. “That'll make an interesting story.” The claws reached forward again.
“Wait!” Aquilas stepped forward. What? What am I doing?
“Huh?” He was starting to sound annoyed now and turned to Aquilas. “What? Don't tell me you want two kills. You got one already.” He motioned with his wing toward the dead pony.
“Don't kill it,” Aquilas said. Even as he spoke, the words sounded alien to him. The rush of victory, so recently flowing through his veins, vanished and was replaced by a cold uncertainty. He was swimming in unknown waters now.
“Don't kill it?” Goshawk sounded as bewildered as Aquilas felt. “Why not? It's prey.”
He had no answer, just the sight of the shivering, terrified fledgling and the sound of its plea. There was no reason not to kill it. It was weak; they were strong. It ate plants; they ate meat. It was meat, and they were carnivores. Between them, unnoticed, the fledgling had covered its head with its hooves and was mumbling something unintelligible.
It is our nature.
“Just... don't. Don't kill it.” His voice held more resolve than he felt. Why not kill it? Why not kill anything they wanted?
Apparently, Goshawk wasn't troubled by such questions. He turned to fully face Aquilas, his wings extending in anger. “I will kill whatever I want! Who are you to stop me?” He raised a hand, claws extended, and brought it scything toward the huddled pony.
It never landed. Aquilas crashed into him with a full body tackle, his wings and legs both propelling him forward. Together they tumbled back through the underbrush, snapping branches and sending sodden leaves flying through the air. He closed his beak around a feathered shoulder and felt hot blood burst into his mouth.
Goshawk shrieked in anger and pain. His claws tore at Aquilas's side as they rolled to a stop, and he shoved the larger griffon away with his rear legs. The lion's claws hidden in his feet scratched at Aquilas's belly.
Aquilas barely noticed the wounds. The predator had consumed his thoughts again, and all worries about prey and morality and tiny ponies were gone. He jumped at Goshawk again, his claws batting away the other gryphon's arms long enough for his beak to close around Goshawk's throat. More blood filled his mouth, a flood this time, and Goshawk's shriek ended in a sputtering wail. He shoved the dying gryphon away.
Goshawk continued to twitch for several minutes, his claws grasping at his ruined throat. His eyes, wide and bewildered, darted all over the forest, before stopping to stare at Aquilas. More blood pumped from his neck, and the thrashings grew weaker. Finally, mercifully, they stopped. The light in his eyes went out.
The forest was utterly silent around them. Even the birds and insects had vanished, some instinct warning them to flee once the two predators began their fight to the death. Aquilas stared at the corpse for long minutes, then turned back to the pony. His wounds were just starting to ache.
The fledgling stared at him. Its trembling had stopped, and its mouth hung open in surprise. It flinched the instant Aquilas stepped forward. “P-please...”
It was too much. For all his hundreds of kills, he had never truly killed another. Another predator. The horror of what he had done clutched at his heart. The fledgling's gaze, its fear, were simply too much.
He spread his aching wings and leapt into the sky.
There was no way to conceal his wounds from the other gryphons. Instead, he spun them a tale about a manticore that attacked them in the forest, and how Goshawk fought it to the death. The clan was saddened by the loss, but only briefly. Only his sister seemed to doubt his story, but she never challenged him. They were well-acquainted with killing, and mourning was not in their nature. The strong survived, and the weak died. That was their way.
Aquilas spent the next few weeks in the aerie brooding over what had happened. Goshawk's death weighed on him, but more and more his memories circled back to the pony he had slain. Had it been the fledgling's parent? Had they loved each other, as only he and Corva seemed to love within the aerie?
His wanderings through the empty corridors always seemed to bring him back to this spot, the sculpted wall within the great hall. Before him, ponies, gryphons, dragons and beasts danced within the stone, their forms faded but still legible to any who cared to look. What had at first seemed like chaos slowly took form and meaning: bedecked in ancient armors, the ponies and gryphons fought, but not against each other. They made war against the dragons. Scores of them fell, frozen in time, to claws and teeth and fire, but always more came. A list of names carved into a flat plaque beneath the frieze spoke for the dead, and a single line, nearly obliterated by the passage of time and the smoke of countless cook fires, offered the only hint of the battle's meaning: “The price of victory.”
He turned to the other wall, behind Regalan's throne. The pony skin still hung there, its colors dimmed by time and smoke. The remaining feathers had long since fallen from its sole wing. A faint draft set the dry, naked limb waving. Still trying to fly.
It was time to talk with someone. He left to find his sister.
Corva was sunning herself on an open roost when he found her. Spring's bright sun bathed them with warm light, almost intoxicating after the long dark months of winter. It was like being a chick again, nestled against his mother's belly in the roost. He paused a moment to enjoy it.
“You're looking better.” She caught him off guard. She opened one eye to regard him, then beckoned him over with a curl of her wing. Her black feathers had a rainbow's sheen in the sunlight.
They exchanged a nuzzle as he lowered himself beside her. For a while, neither spoke as they enjoyed the sun.
“But,” she eventually continued, “something is still bothering you. Goshawk?”
“Yes,” he said. It was not a lie, but not for the reasons she suspected.
“I'm sure you did your best to save him. You were stronger. You lived.”
They were quiet again while he thought. Corva's beak hung half open, and her eyes half shut, as the sun lulled her into a stupor.
“What about the pony?” he said, sometime later.
“Huh? The one Goshawk killed? What about it?”
“They're like us, you know. They have families. They care about each other.”
“So?” She tilted her head at him. “They are still prey, Aquilas. No rules or morals apply. They're just like seals. We kill them because we can, and because we can, it is right. It is natural.”
It is our nature. His father's voice sounded in his mind.
He frowned at the thought. “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must?”
“Well, that's one way to put it.” She nudged him with her wing. “Now, be quiet. You worry enough for both of us sometimes.”
Together they sat in the sun until its daily arc took it into the lee of the mountain. Deprived of its warmth, they retired back into the aerie.
He left the next morning.
Newborn leaves, bright green and soft, sprouted from a million branches in the valley below, filling it with color and life. They drank the light of the sun and grew toward the sky. His mountain home was a barren wasteland compared to this paradise.
He soared just above the treetops, following the winding river as it descended through the valley. Just a few miles away he had killed the pony and fought Goshawk; now he searched for something else entirely.
The fledgling was too small to fly. It must have lived somewhere in the valley. Somewhere warm and flat, with rich fields and growing plants for ponies to eat. Ponies were herd animals: where one lived, many lived.
Not like gryphons. The aerie was a thing of convenience, a home for solitary predators who happened to make common cause against the world. Their bonds were loose, tenuous and easily severed. Even their families, the most basic unit of society, were fragile things. He and Corva were the rare exception: adult siblings who still felt some bond with each other. Who still sat together in the sun.
A hint of smoke in the air was the first sign of the ponies. He curled his left wing, and his path through the air bent in a gentle arc toward a flat floodplain that stretched away from the river. The trees beneath him began to thin, and he stopped to land between them. He would be harder to see on foot.
The underbrush was denser than he remembered, but it concealed his approach. From a wide clearing in front of him that extended fully to the river, he could hear the sounds of industry. Axes against wood, hammers against metal, wheels turning over dirt roads. He pushed through the last of the underbrush and crouched at the forest's edge.
The ponies had a village.
He knew the word, “village,” and though he had never seen one before, there was nothing else this could be. A dozen homes, crafted from finely cut wood, gathered at the confluence of a small stream and the great river. Fields had been plowed all around them and were beginning to bear the fruits of their labor. Tall stalks of grain, wood scaffolds filled with vines, row after row after row of leafy shrubs and growing melons and berries blistering with color and life.
So many colors.
And then there were the ponies. Many lacked wings, which was odd, and one or two had small horns protruding from their foreheads. All were rich with color, their coats bright pastels or deep florals or soothing twilights. Hours passed while he stared at them, patient and still as only predators can be. But nothing that was a predator shared his mind.
He watched them go about their daily lives and knew, suddenly knew, what the aerie lacked. What his tribe, reduced to a few dozens hunters and warriors, should have been. A real society, built with families, crafting and growing and building and living.
He watched them for hours more, until the sun fell behind the mountains and the village ponies turned into their homes for the night. He watched as warm yellow light spilled from their windows. He watched as their lights went out, one by one, until darkness held full dominion over the valley.
He flew home.
Spring wore on into summer, and he visited the village often. The glacier, the mountain, the aerie—they lost what little color and life he saw in them. Only blood on the snow seemed real any more.
He stayed out of the ponies' way. They saw him haunting the edges of the forest, but were never hostile. Defensive, yes, but not hostile. In time, even that relaxed, and it was like he was simply another part of the landscape, an aspect of the forest for them to ponder in their warm little houses and happy lives.
At night, as the height of summer weighed down upon the valley, the village truly came alive.
The ponies gathered in the open square between their houses and began to dance. Rhythmic sounds, music, flowed from strings and drums and horns and throats. Their joy was transcendent. Every face beamed with an utter happiness that he could only imagine feeling for the briefest of moments after a kill. They were happy, and he slowly realized how empty his life was. The cold, vast and empty halls of the aerie seemed more like a tomb.
Had gryphons known this once? Had the artist who carved the stone wall in the aerie's great hall ever danced? Had he ever known the easy joy of song?
Eventually, the ponies noticed him standing in the field, no longer hidden in the brush of the forest. The song slowly died, the dancing slid to a stop, and for a long moment, they stared at each other. In the flickering torchlight, his perfect eyes could make out every face in the crowd, among them the fledgling he had saved in the forest, all those months ago.
Then one pony stepped forward, its hoof raised as though in greeting. They smiled at him, and beckoned him. Join us, their faces said.
It is our nature.
He flew home.
“You've been coming here a lot.” Corva's voice broke the silence of the great hall.
Aquilas turned in surprise. He hadn't heard her enter. But then, he had been busy with his work. Chips of wood, frayed around the edges, lay scattered around him.
“What's that you're making?” she asked as she approached. She peered at the object in his hand, then gave him a quick nuzzle behind the ear with her beak.
“It's a sculpture,” he said. “A pony, like in the wall.” He held up the wood carving he had labored over for hours.
She stared at it, then at the wall, then back at it. “It is?”
He frowned. Sculpting was harder than he thought. He could see the pony in the wood just as easily as he could see the pony in the stone, but for all their sharpness and skill at hunting, his claws were poor tools for crafting. The misshapen block of wood resembled a hunk of meat. Perhaps sculpting was not among his talents.
“Never mind,” he said, setting the wood aside. “Listen!” He picked up a tiny metal hammer, one of the few tools in the aerie, and began tapping it against the floor.
She listened to him tap for a while. Eventually, she reached out and placed her hand on his, silencing him.
“What are you doing, Aquilas?”
“It's music!” He pulled the hammer away and began tapping at the walls again, The broken, irrhythymic sounds echoed in the empty hall, discordant and displeasing to the ear. He didn't notice.
“You're being silly,” she scolded him. “We're not fledglings anymore, brother. This...” She waved a clawed hand at the scraps of wood littering the floor. “This is for children, not hunters.”
“Who says we can't do both? Why can't I hunt and make art? Gryphons used to!” He faced the sculpture on the wall as he spoke.
She snorted. “Weak gryphons did. We're not weak anymore.”
He frowned again, though his eyes never left the sculpture. Eventually, she chuffed in annoyance and left.
Summer became autumn. The fields around the pony village grew heavy and ripe, and for a week, the entire village left their homes to harvest the crops. In just a few days, the fields were cut down to stubble, and their larders were stuffed with fruits and grains and hay.
At night, the ponies celebrated their hard work. They strung up lanterns between the buildings and set up feasts in the streets. Bonfires blazed in the little square at the center of their village.
He began to recognize individual ponies. Their chief, or whatever they called their leader, was an older pegasus who seemed to spend most of his time with the fledglings, watching and teaching them while their parents worked. A horned pony with a pale green coat ran a windmill, and was busy for weeks after the harvest turning the town's grain into flour. A blacksmith, with neither wings nor horn, was the largest pony Aquilas had ever seen, larger than an adult gryphon and with muscles to spare. He swung his hammer as though it were the lightest of feathers.
But it was the fledgling he saw the most.
Pink, like the inside of a shell, with tiny wings that beat nervously even as he walked through the fields. Exactly the same as Aquilas remembered him in the forest. And never alone—always another fledgling or an adult was with him. Never alone, but alone in the expression he wore: brittle. Even when the fledgling smiled, or laughed with the other children, he was always on the verge of tears.
It took Aquilas days to understand why: ponies mourned their dead.
They saw him during their festivals, and every time they stopped to invite him. Even the fledgling whose parent he murdered, whose life he saved, seemed ready to welcome him. He imagined himself with them.
As always, he flew home.
“You should go hunting.”
“Hm?” He didn't look up from his latest carving. It vaguely resembled a pony, if one was open-minded about the possible shapes a pony could be. Better than his earlier work, at any rate. He held the fist-sized sculpture up to the wall, to compare with the ancient stone sculptures there.
Still a ways to go.
“I said, you should go hunting,” his sister repeated. She sat beside him and gave his hobby a disparaging glance. “You know, something useful? Something you're good at? A few of us are heading out tomorrow. You should join us.”
He ignored her implications. “We have enough meat. It would just go to waste.”
“Who said anything about meat? You need to kill. You're getting soft.” She poked his ribs with a claw.
“Maybe there are more important things than killing,” he countered. “Maybe you should try something new.”
“Mm.” She made a show of considering it. “No, sounds boring. And don't let father hear you say that. Regalan's already annoyed with you.”
Aquilas's ears perked up. That was news. “Is he? Why?”
Corva rolled her eyes. “Sometimes, brother... How can he boast of having the world's greatest hunter as a son, when you don't hunt?”
They were quiet for a while. He scratched at his little wood idol, roughing in a bit more of the pony's form. Tiny wood shavings drifted to the cold stone floor, adding to the carpet already present.
“What does killing prove?” he finally said. He tilted the sculpture this way and that.
She shrugged. “It proves we're better. Stronger. If there were some predator out there able to hunt gryphons, do you think it would hesitate to do so? The strong kill the weak.”
“They don't have to!” he snapped. Her eyes widened in surprise—he almost never raised his voice against her.
The fraught moment stretched between them. Before he could apologize, she reached out and carefully laid her clawed hand atop his. She leaned close, her breath tickling the feathers behind his ear.
“Yes, they do, brother,” she whispered. “Yes, they do.”
It is our nature.
He pulled away. “Someday,” he said, more to himself than her. “Someday, I will boast of a son who is anything but a hunter.”
Corva gave him a silent stare. Eventually, she left him to his carving.
Corva had already left for her hunt when he woke. He briefly considered chasing her troop down and joining them, but found the thought held little appeal. He simply wasn't in the mood to kill.
Instead, he flew south toward the village. Perhaps today would be the day.
Autumn had arrived in force. The valley stretched out below him, painted in brilliant reds and golds. Maples the color of blood dotted the flat plains. Towering sycamores with yellow leaves as wide as his outstretched claws lined the river as it wound south to the foothills. Only the pines draped along the edges of the mountains still held their green.
He lost himself in the riot of colors as he flew. Soon enough, winter would come, and all would be bare again. Still better than his lifeless mountain, but not as good as this. He wondered what the ponies did in the winter.
The flight was longer than usual. He lazed his way to the village, swooping through wide turns to inspect a particularly stunning swath of the forest. Soon it would all be gone, and he wanted as many memories to cherish as he could stuff into his mind.
Something was wrong when he arrived. The fields, usually filled with working or playing ponies, were empty. The normal sounds of village life were gone. An empty cart, abandoned, sat in the middle of the dirt path leading to the river. The windmill was still.
He landed beside the cart. It was closer than he had ever dared approach, but there were no ponies to frighten him away. Only a few rough voices, high and scratchy, reached him over the wind. His stomach knotted into a sick ball as he trotted down the path, past the fences, and into the village.
Ponies lay everywhere. Whole and in pieces. The dirt was soaked with blood.
The blacksmith, small and pitiful in death, stretched across the threshold of his shop. Half his torso was gone.
A female pegasus leaned against a nearby wall. A smear of blood showed how she had stumbled along it, desperate for support, until finally succumbing to the terrible gash across her chest. Feathers the same pale yellow as her coat speckled the ground around her.
He stepped past the bodies, unthinking. The predator in his mind calmly cataloged their wounds, admiring the extravagant care that had gone into their deaths. They hadn't died quickly. They had been played with.
He walked over more bodies. The chief, clutching a foal to his chest. The windmill worker, untouched except for a savaged neck. He stepped over ponies he had seen alive, just days ago. At any moment, he expected the dead to stand and begin going about their business, as if nothing was wrong. It was impossible that they had all died.
In the center of the village he found the only things still alive: a pair of gryphons, unrecognizable beneath an ogre's draught of blood. They played in the middle of the square. Laughing, shouting with the joy only a predator knows, they tossed a foal's head between them. Patches of fur showed through the blood.
He stared at them for minutes before they noticed his presence. The taller of the two, a white gryphon named Kestra, nearly dropped the head in surprise. Then a wide grin broke out across his bloodied face, and he waved at Aquilas.
“About time you showed up! We were wondering if you would ever hunt again!” he shouted. The other gryphon turned as well. Scraps of a colorful hide hung from the edges of his beak. Their eyes were wide and shining.
The smaller one—Accipa, he thought—laughed. The sound was wild and shocking in the silence of the village. “We'd have left some if we'd known you were coming,” he called across the square. “I think you'd have been bored, though. They weren't much of a challenge.”
Kestra walked toward him, still grinning. “It was beautiful, Aquilas. They didn't even try to fight us at first. They actually welcomed us in! Like they expected us!”
Yes, they would have. He stared at them, empty minded, lost in his memories. Ponies stopped dancing to watch him. Bonfires burned unattended. Ponies smiled and welcome him. Ponies who were dancing.
And now, lying dead, all around him. He swept his gaze over the ruins of the village. High above, carrion birds wheeled in the air. Their shadows flitted across the village like ghosts. An angry buzzing noise filled the village, like a host of cicadas had suddenly woken. He realized, after a moment of confusion, that the sound was only in his mind.
“You killed them all,” he said, half to himself. Part question, part statement. He imagined the villagers reacting in horror to the first death. Did they flee, or try to fight back? Did parents abandon their foals, or die protecting them? Off to the side, an open door banged on its hinges in the wind.
“Most of them, I guess,” Kestra said. “They were a lot more fun than seals. We'll have to come looking for more--”
He never finished. Aquilas's claws, extended straight like daggers, pierced his throat just below the voicebox, tearing past the feathers and thin flesh and stiff cartilage in a single fluid motion. He stepped forward, his hand still buried to its wrist in Kestra's neck, and brought his other arm around in a sweeping arc. He nearly decapitated the gryphon.
The foal's head fell to the ground, followed an instant later by Kestra's lifeless body.
Accipa reacted slowly. Pitifully. How could he have ever been a hunter? Rather than run, or fly, or attempt to strike, he simply stared as Aquilas turned. He raised a clawed hand to defend himself.
It was effortless. Aquilas feinted to the left, then darted forward, catching the disoriented gryphon with a quick slash to the face. Accipa started to scream, a hand pressed against his blinded eye, when Aquilas's closed fist smashed against the back of his head. He fell, limp, and a bite to the spine just below his skull ended it. As easy as killing a seal.
It is our nature.
He studied the bodies in silence. Only a handful of seconds had passed. He’d killed them both in a single breath. Blood still flowed from their wounds, though slower with every passing heartbeat. Its taste was fresh in his mouth.
A sound—feathers brushing against wood—caught his ears. He turned to the house with its banging door. His sister stared at him, her mouth agape, her black feathers sparkling like a shrouded rainbow in the bright autumn sun. From her claws hung a small pelt, pink as the inside of a shell, rimmed in blood.
Love was the rarest of emotions among gryphons. A precious bond he had shared with Corva from the first minutes out of their shells. In the deepest winters, it was the only warmth in the aerie.
“Why?” he asked her. His voice was utterly calm, as emotionless as a glacier. “They did nothing to us. Nothing to deserve this.”
For a long moment, she was silent. Her eyes danced between the dead gryphons and him. When she finally spoke, her voice was as empty as his. “Because we could, brother.”
Love, a fragile flame, blew out in the face of a predator's rage. Her pleading eyes were the last thing he remembered from that terrible day.
The few ponies who survived the massacre fled south, toward their ancient homeland. They ran, day and night, until they dropped from exhaustion. Down the pathless forest haunts they ran, and never did they look back.
The village stood, empty and alone, until the quiet creep of time reduced the colorful buildings to rubble. Inch by inch, season by season, the fields surrendered to the forest, until nothing else remained.
In time, no one, pony or gryphon, knew the village had ever been there at all.
Alone, at last, he returned to the aerie. Alone, at last, his nature was clear. The fetters that bound his soul melted away, and he was finally free. Free as driftwood, lost in the ocean. Free as the clouds, high in the sky. He was free to be his nature: the first, the last, and only predator. Everything else was prey.
He found his father cowering deep within the aerie, a few hours after his return. Regalan looked so much older now.
“Why?” his father asked. His voice broke with pain. Blood flowed from a dozen wounds across his hide. For the first time in Regalan's life, his feathers were painted with his own blood. “Why are you doing this?”
Aquilas stood for a moment in thoughtful silence, interrupted only by the sound of Regalan's wet, ragged breath echoing in the dark chamber. It was odd; his father should be proud. This was what gryphons were born for.
“It is our nature.”
He slew every gryphon in the aerie. They were nothing more than seals. Weak. Prey.
He was the apex predator, and he defeated every enemy but one: light as a feather, heavy as the oceans, fate bound him in chains. Ever it drew him back to his mountain to rule as king, lord of the glacier and all that crawled or walked or flew. All lived in fear of his shadow. All bowed to the carnivore god.
He wept, he prayed. He went insane.
And for all the years a gryphon can live, he haunted the halls of his aerie. Vast, still, and cold, but empty no more, for a thousand shades shared his paths, ghosts or memories or both. Mangled bits of wood, carved into tortured forms, littered the great hall. Their broken shapes grovelled before his throne.
Within the dungeon of his mind he imprisoned his weaknesses and hopes, his pities and scorns, his dreams and prayers. At last the dross had burned away, and only the eater of flesh remained. And not all the blood in the world, no matter how long or deeply he bathed, could make him clean.
For as driftwood is enchanted by the tides, and clouds are indentured to the winds, fate was forever his master, and graven on his heart was his last and only truth.
Even a god can be a slave.
[Author's note: As always, I am eternally indebted to my editors: Corejo, Drakmire, Filler and Aesthetic B. I also want to single out for praise Cassius, who tore this story to shreds with his numerous edits. If this tale has any merit, it is due to them.]