Feathered Hearts - Continuation and Chronicles

by Firesight


6: Hall of Heroes

Gilda was starting to wonder if becoming an officer had already irrevocably changed her, or if her new command chain was somehow enchanted to make her less impulsive and more mature.

As she faced the griffon and human Ambassadors in the latter’s office at the Inn, she found herself standing up for Marco repeatedly, even emphatically. This, despite her earlier dislike of him and her own lingering desires to settle things with him, which increasingly were less about stalking him and slashing his face than sitting him down and making clear she was still not happy with him.

Even after his occasionally clumsy attempts to make amends, and his honorable attempt to defend his friend, she still didn’t fully like or trust him. But nor could she just stand by and let him be slandered by the obviously biased human Ambassador, who had called her in after he and Strenus had interviewed Marco and Chris separately in the presence of Lieutenant Nantz.

That, at least, she could justify to herself. She’d already had that happen to her once before, when Rainbow refused to stand up for her after she’d gotten mad for being made the butt of an endless series of pranks. Remembering the sting of it, she had thus vowed to be better about such things if the time ever came, and she found herself on the other side of it.

She just never thought it would be over an alien ape whom she still had severe issues with.

But in the end, she couldn’t help it. Though her sense of gryphon honor might have been a bit stunted from her upbringing in Equestria, she refused to let the brown-skinned human be held responsible for something that was not his fault—especially when he’d only been defending a friend.

So she gently brushed aside all of Goldberg’s probes and thinly veiled suggestions that she recommend Marco be shipped back through the portal, on the grounds that he was “endangering the amicability of their ongoing trade negotiations” through his “unfortunate habit of regrettable incidents with civilian and soldier populations alike.”

Though increasingly annoyed by his needlessly wordy and transparently dweeby attempts to sway her, she stood fast and kept her voice level, keeping her irritation confined to an occasional tail flick as she continued to insist there was no valid reason to expel him, regardless of whatever issues she’d had with him previously.

In truth, she was impressed with herself for her steadfastness in the face of such pressure, knowing that she’d likely have lost her temper over it just a year or two earlier. She wasn’t sure if it was more adulthood or the command chain she now bore that had mellowed her, but either way…

Or maybe I’m just getting old like Fortrakt says, she inwardly admitted when their attention wasn’t on her. I call him “cub” even though I’m only three winters out of my teens? Guess after being abandoned by my friend and being told no repeatedly by father, I had to grow up quick, she grudgingly conceded, as much as she hated to give any credit to her sire or her missteps in Equestria for helping her to mature.

Such thoughts were best saved for later, however, as they had no end of questions for her. In the end, after additional deliberations behind closed doors, Ambassador Goldberg relented. He allowed Marco to stay, but insisted that all human soldiers and civilians receive ‘intensive cultural sensitivity training’ to prevent such mishaps from occurring again.

With his attention on Gilda, she knew he didn’t see Lieutenant Nantz grimace and rub his eyes behind him. But after the human Ambassador had departed in what she took to at least be a slight huff, Nantz summoned Gilda to his improvised headquarters to discuss matters ‘officer to officer’ with her.

“Now that our betters are gone, let’s work this out without any personal agendas or diplomatic doublespeak, shall we?” he suggested with a slightly exasperated grin and an arched eyeridge, offering her some coffee in a bowl when they arrived at his office. Though not her favorite drink, she accepted it graciously, at least after he gave it a strong measure of cream and sugar. If nothing else, she was gratified that he had the same reaction to the interview process as she had.

Once they’d downed half their mug and bowl, he sat down behind his desk and asked for her advice, as a griffon officer, on how to keep his civilian charges safe without provoking resentment or causing more trouble with the Kingdom.

To her surprise, they ended up chatting openly and amicably for the better part of an hour. It was a far more pleasant conversation in which they bounced ideas off each other, though she surprised him when she agreed with Goldberg that the three needed much more instruction on griffon culture. “It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for your Marines to receive it as well,” she further mused.

When asked why, she explained that both incidents could have been defused at the start if Marco and Chris had simply known basic griffon gestures, behavior, and body language.

“Challenge and duel rules, taboo talk and touching… These are things every griffon knows, so we expect visitors to the Kingdom to learn them as well. When somecreature doesn’t… well, bad things can happen, like yesterday. Or three days ago.” Her wings flared slightly and tail twitched once for emphasis, letting him see her feathers were still ruffled over the initial incident with Marco.

Nantz studied her closely for a moment. “I don’t need to take your training to tell you’re still pissed at him over that,” he noted. “I can well imagine you don’t like being around him right now. And yet, you stood up and defended him.”

She looked up at the taller human officer. “Whatever issues I may have with Marco Lakan, they do not affect the performance of my duty. And regardless of my feelings for him, I’m not about to let him be punished for defending a friend,” she said emphatically, but then blinked hard and had to stifle a grimace—she’d meant to say feelings towards him, not for him!

If Nantz picked up on her slip of the beak, he hid it well. “That’s very professional of you, Decurion. I approve.” He gave her a respectful nod. “Very well. I can’t argue with what you’re saying. We got some cultural training from your Ambassador before we came, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said without thinking, then caught herself. “I mean that with all due respect to Ambassador Strenus, he’s been away from the Kingdom for so long that he’s forgotten some of his own culture—he actually gave your civilians some very bad advice on greeting griffons,” she recalled, her feathers ruffling again before she forced them to still. “I don’t actually blame him for that, though. The same thing happened to me when I was away from the Kingdom for a few years.” Or twelve...

“Understandable,” he said with a nod at her. “That being the case, can you and Second Spear Gletscher give us some classes? Civilian incidents are bad enough, but the last thing I need is one of my Marines getting into it with another griffon over some misunderstanding. That would be a whole different level of bad,” he noted somewhat mildly, to which Gilda, though not relishing the idea of additional duty, agreed.

In the end, they decided to both carry out the training and to cancel any more field forays for Chris, Tara and Marco until the classes could be given and security procedures could be “improved to ensure civilian safety.” Though somewhat formally stated, Gilda gathered that the Lieutenant wanted to send some of his own soldiers along for the ride the next time they went out again, in which case the training had to be given sooner rather than later.

It would take some time to arrange, though, and in the meantime, the three were not to leave Arnau, and not to leave the Inn except under escort and close supervision. That being the case, Gilda asked for permission to take Chris, Tara and Marco on a private tour of the Kingdom’s Hall of Heroes, located on the city’s fifth level, that afternoon.

“Consider it part of their cultural training,” she replied when he asked why. “If you want to know who we are, you can start with who we revere. And besides, I really don’t want their impressions of the Kingdom to be defined by being attacked by a couple dweeby teens looking for a chance to fluff their chests and flare their headcrests,” she told him with a roll of her eyes. “In short, Chris and Marco saw some bad parts of our society. So, let me show them the good.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Nantz replied. “But what about—”

“And if you’re worried about their safety, don’t. As it’s in a restricted area for being only two levels below the Royal Palace, that area is well-guarded by elite Paladin soldiers, and we won’t make the mistake of allowing them to be separate again.” She anticipated his question. “I promise that Second Spear Gletscher and I will keep them together and safe.”

“Sounds secure, but are you sure I can’t send a few of my Marines along?” he asked, to which Gilda emphatically shook her head. “If you’re worried about a show of force, I could order them to just wear their day uniforms and leave their weapons behind.”

“Thank you, but no. Armed or not, the Paladins would not appreciate it,” she informed him, referring to the Queen’s green-armored and well-trained protectors that were at least roughly analogous to Equestria’s Royal Guardsponies in function, but far more competent at their jobs. “As the Hall of Heroes is considered sacred ground, uniformed foreign soldiers are not allowed there, even as unarmed bodyguards.”

“They wouldn’t make an exception for guards attached to diplomatic guests?” Nantz asked.

“No. They take their duties quite seriously and do not make exceptions except on direct order of the Queen, who has issued none,” she explained, to which he relented. “But that said, you can also be sure they’d act promptly to protect such guests, especially foreign dignitaries. That’s why I can promise that Chris, Tara, and Marco would be safe there.”

“Understood. In that case, you have my blessing,” he decided, then turned contemplative. “I assume Chris and Marco will behave themselves after their close calls. Especially Chris, given that from what you say, he set off the attack by trying to speak your language.”

“It wasn’t just that, but yes. He tried, but very poorly,” she confirmed with a wince. “His accent and inflections were all wrong. I offered to give him lessons, but after his… experience, I’m not sure he’d be willing to try speaking Aeric again for fear of making a griffon angry.”

“I can imagine,” the Lieutenant acknowledged with a nod, but then he smirked. “Ego sum etiam operantes in taberna dominus ad me Aeric ope. Quid sonat? Numquid melior illo?” he asked her out of nowhere.

She blinked hard and looked up at him in surprise. “Non perfecta, sed multo melius,” she replied, and meant it—he’d even gotten the squawk on the leading Ts and the slight trill on the vowels passable, if not perfect. “Not bad at all, Lieutenant. You still need some work on the proper amount of hiss for the S sounds and selecting which syllables to stress. You’re also missing the beak clacks on the Qs and Cs, though I’m honestly not sure how you can fix that without beaks of your own. May I ask where you learned our language?”

“I took it at the U.S. Naval Academy as my foreign language requirement,” he replied with a grin. “It became much more popular to take once we learned there was a large nation on Tellus that still spoke it. You don’t speak it the same way we did since you’ve got all these additional sounds involved, but Merlina Marcus, the daughter of the Inn’s owner, has been helping me in the evenings with the intonations.”

“I see,” she replied neutrally, though inwardly she was worried—still spoke it? So, they’d been studying the races and languages of Tellus for years? That was troubling—it suggested that humans had been conducting their own intelligence gathering long before the Kingdom had been able to start, putting them at a potential disadvantage in both diplomacy and warfare. And why was he attending a ‘naval’ academy if he was a Marine?

Wait—did that mean they had a Navy? But how, if they didn’t have military airships?

She didn’t know, but it was all excellent fodder for her next report to Tribune Narada. She would also have to have a chat with the Inn’s proprietor, to see what other information she might have divulged to them. Perhaps she thought she was just being a good hostess, but Gilda was increasingly concerned that the humans were gathering as much intelligence on griffons as they were trying to do on humans.

“Overall, you’re getting there, Lieutenant, but I’d encourage you to keep practicing. And I extend the same offer to you as Second Spear Gletscher and I did to Chris—we would be willing to help teach you.”

“Thank you. I may well take you up on that,” he told her, getting up from behind his desk to walk around the front. “Thank you as well for your time and counsel, Decurion. This has been a very productive meeting.”

“My pleasure, Lieutenant.” They clasped forelegs, and then stepped back and saluted each other simultaneously in their own manner, as befit their roughly equal ranks. “By your leave, the Second Spear and I will take Chris, Marco and Tara out after midday.”


By the time their talk concluded, it was nearly lunchtime, as the rumble of Gilda’s belly shortly reminded her. Walking with Reyes, he asked her if it was true they were going to have to sit through another “cultural training session” again. She told him yes, but as she would be giving it, she promised it would be very direct and to the point.

“I don’t know what training you had before, but it shouldn’t take more than half an hour to relate everything you need to know. Trust me, I don’t have any more interest in spending all day stuck in a seminar than you,” she told him with a slightly pained smile, to which he smiled and fired her a respectful salute.

Arriving, she found Fortrakt already there and Marco quite tense, awaiting the decision on whether he could stay. She saw he relaxed fractionally when it was just herself and Sergeant Reyes that entered, perhaps guessing that if he was actually being expelled, Nantz or even the Ambassador would have come to tell him personally.

“You’re good, buddy,” Reyes told him with a grin and an odd gesture of making an enclosed fist except for his opposable talon, which pointed up. “All thanks to the lady here.”

She gave him a reproachful look. “That’s Decurion, Sergeant,she reminded him, to which he only grinned and flashed her another salute. After returning it, she detailed what had happened in the morning’s deliberations, and the decisions that had been made.

Though disappointed to learn that they wouldn’t be allowed back out into the countryside for a bit and not looking forward to more training, even Marco agreed they probably needed it. “Once bitten, twice shy…” he admitted, and though Gilda hadn’t heard that particular idiom before, she at least guessed the meaning of it.

Lunch consisted of fruit and thin slices of sausage they piled between pieces of bakery bread they’d bought the previous day. Sausage was sold in the markets as it was considered something of a starter food for weaning cubs or restoring strength after a serious injury or illness, and it amused her at least mildly that humans considered it valid fare for healthy adults as well.

But she accepted it amicably. She was certainly well-used to eating sandwiches from her time in Equestria, and at least unlike most of those, these had meat on them. They’d even brought along some Equestrian condiments to dress up the bread a bit. As far as that went, she preferred mustard, but noted Fortrakt seemed to greatly enjoy the mayonnaise once he’d tasted it, slathering it on his bread.

The humans ate it on their sandwiches along with some salad greens and slices of artisan cheese they’d bought a couple of days earlier. They then washed it all down with brewed tea and juice, though she noticed Marco poured a small amount of liquid from his flask into a mug of the latter.

When Fortrakt asked what it was, he was told it was Buffalo Whiskey, a drink that was even rarer to griffons than the heavily tariffed thestral wines. “Wow! I’ve heard that’s really strong! We don’t have any relations with the Buffalo and they don’t export their stuff. Can I try some?” he asked hopefully.

“We’re on duty, Second Spear,” she reminded him. “No drinking.”

“Come on, Decurion! I’ve never had it! Just a sip?” he suggested hopefully, to which she rolled her eyes, but nodded.

He coughed hard when he took a small spoonful in his beak, his eyes watering as it burned the back of his throat. “By the Ancestors…” he croaked out, having to quickly pour some water for himself as the humans and Gilda could only laugh. “That’s good stuff! Could I have some more later…?”


Once lunch was finished, Gilda told the three to clean up and dress nicely, instructing them to treat their visit to the Hall of Heroes the same way they would if they were being brought before the Queen herself.

“It’s both a museum and a monument. They contain the statues and stories of those griffons—and non-griffons—we revere, so we ask that you accord them due respect by not appearing slovenly,” she explained with a pointed look at Marco. She’d gotten some sense of the range of human attire from formal to informal by then, and he certainly fell hard on the latter end of the spectrum.

“That means no torn-up jeans, Marco,” Tara chided him, pointing a blunt talon at his splotchy blue leg coverings. “You’re going to a museum, not a backyard barbecue.”

“Yeah, yeah…” he said somewhat grumpily as the three went to their rooms to shower and change clothes, while Gilda and Fortrakt retreated to their own quarters to hastily groom and pull on their dress uniforms for the second time in a week. Though still an annoying process, she got it on a little easier this time, maybe because wearing and moving in it for the better part of the day of their arrival had loosened it up a bit.

“Not bad, Decurion,” Fortrakt said as he greeted her outside, straightening her left steel shoulder pauldron slightly, to her annoyance. “But I still say that I make this uniform look good. Especially with all my new armor!” He struck a pose.

“Yeah, and I still say that while you’re trying to impress Tara with your spit-shined plates, I’ll be sitting behind a desk, ordering you to get me a drink.” She deliberately baited him with her earlier comment, wondering if he’d catch what was different in his eagerness to get the better of her again.

“Yep, just like any old griffon. Sit behind the table and—” he blinked hard as he caught up with her statement mentally, his wits a half-second slow. “Wait—Tara?” He instantly went flustered. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You know perfectly well what it means, cub,” she said as she smirked at him. “Like it isn’t as obvious as a crow against the snow that you’re interested in her.”

He blushed and his tail twitched hard. “No, I’m not!” he initially insisted, only for Gilda’s knowing grin to grow.Well, maybe… I-I mean, yeah, she’s kinda interesting. But she’s not an eagless!” he finally managed. “Come off it, Gilda—why the crows would I want her? It’s not as if she could fight a mating round or anything!”

“No, but she let you put your claws on her shoulders to check out her ‘tattoo’,” Gilda pointed out, her smirk growing as his blush intensified. “Your skin is so soft…” she then pantomimed in a deliberately bad imitation of his voice. “Sounds serious to me! So should I send out the wedding invitations? Or maybe I should just tell that Talon eagless you scored a round with that the date is off?”

“Don’t you dare!” he exclaimed in Equish to some glances from the Marine sentries stationed down the hall, but then he looked away. “Look, uh… she’s just… different. Marco’s cool, and I love all his toys, but she’s really warm and friendly and open and…” he trailed off uncertainly, unwilling to voice whatever he’d been about to say.

“And she lets you touch her nice soft shoulders without so much as a single spar or talon slash,” Gilda guessed, relishing the look on his face. “Fine, whatever. All joking aside, I won’t order you to stay away from her, but you’d best fly carefully, Second Spear. We’ve already got enough complications with the humans; crows know we don’t need anymore!

“And besides, you really don’t know how she’d react to your interest in her, or how humans in general would. Never mind other griffons. And never mind that we’re here on an assignment, remember?”

She had the distinct pleasure of seeing him speechless and unable to come up with a retort. “Yes, sir,” was all he could say, deflating and falling in silently behind her as they walked back down the hall towards the human suite.

Ten minutes later, they were exiting the Inn to some snickers from the Marines at the front, who seemed especially amused at the sight of Chris in a business suit and Marco dressed at least somewhat up.

“Wow, a collared shirt and slacks? You look almost civilized! So who died, flip-boy?” one of the lower-ranked ones called out, she judged from the fewer stripes on the thick fabric of his sleeve—she really did need to learn more about their rank structure and insignias, she had the passing thought.

Flushing, Marco then threatened to withhold further ‘fun stuff’ from them if they took his picture “out of his proper attire”, to which they pulled out their cameras and began snapping away as Chris and Tara could only laugh.

In contrast, Tara earned what she could only describe as a series of openly appreciative and even leering looks as she passed them, dressed in a bright red business suit with a black ‘blouse’ beneath that looked like it could have come from a high-end clothier in Canterlot.

Though no connoisseur of human fashion, even Gilda could see that it showed off the curves of her feminine form quite well, especially with her skirt not quite coming down to her knees. She also wore stylized black shoes that raised her heels and had an odd bag with her, not unlike a side-mounted satchel that griffons often used, except this one was slung over her shoulder.

“It’s not for you, but I hope you enjoyed the show, boys,” she told them with a wink and mock salute as she passed the male Marines, putting what looked like some additional sway to her hips and strut to her step.

For his part, Fortrakt was awestruck at her altered appearance, and the sheer confidence she radiated. “You know, maybe I will cancel that date…” he said under his breath in Aeric beside her, leaving Gilda wondering if he knew he’d said it out loud.

But she let it go, deciding it would provide endless hours of entertainment teasing him over it later. She then escorted their guests through the commercial district of the third level and the high-end residences of the fourth, heading all the way up to the fifth level—a trip that would take her less than a minute by air, but nearly half an hour by ground.

They had to pass the sentries to reach the fifth level, which was where the Paladins took over from the Auxiliary Guard patrols, but her command chain and recognition code got them past that as well. The three humans were, however, instructed to surrender their ‘recording devices and other exotic magical items’ before they were allowed in, with the sentries explaining that by order of the Paladin leadership, they didn’t want any of the upper levels recorded.

The three humans did so reluctantly, parting with their tablets and smaller rectangular objects. “Uh… will we get them back?” Marco had to ask before surrendering his.

“I’ll put it this way—if you don’t, there will be diplomatic issues,” Gilda announced emphatically, making sure the Paladin leader heard her and noted her diplomatic command chain. “I promise they will be here, untouched and unexamined for you to pick back up when we return,” she told them, her tone making clear to the green-armored guards it was an order.

“By your command,” the slightly annoyed Paladin Decanus promised, her feathers ruffled at having to take orders from an Auxiliary Guard eagless when it was normally the other way around. Nevertheless, she obeyed, baring her throat and saluting, placing the items in a sealed container to store with a tag in a secured room.

Once past the guards, they reached the fifth level proper, which was home to various monuments, governmental offices, and museums. Before long, their objective was in sight—the Hall of Heroes; the largest museum in the entire Griffon Kingdom.

“Damn…” Chris said as he saw the massive columnar structure, taking the form of a large granite monolith carved like the city out of the mountainside itself. He reached for his pocket, presumably to get his picture-taking device, only to remember it was gone. “That’s impressive.”

“If you think it’s grand from the outside, wait until we go in!” Fortrakt said, delighting in their astonished expressions. “You’re going to love it!”

“We will… as long as we don’t wear out our welcome,” Gilda noted, then stepped in front of the three humans so their attention was on her. “So listen up, all of you. Here are the rules, and they must be obeyed at all times: no yelling, no touching of the statues or other exhibits, no running and no flying while inside—okay, the last doesn’t apply to you,” she remembered too late with a grimace.

“You’ll also see green-armored Paladin Guards with spears stationed at intervals as sentries; do not bother them. If they—or we—give you an instruction, obey immediately, and do not get separated. I promised Lieutenant Nantz we’d keep you together at all times. So are we clear?” she asked the three.

“Yes, Mom,” Marco groused slightly; Gilda might have been more annoyed but for the fact she knew she was sounding like a mother talking down to a litter of cubs. “We get it. May we go in now?”

Though uncertain if he really did, she nodded and led them up the steps, passing through the open doors to enter. If the three had been amazed by the outside, they were utterly awestruck by the inside, and even Gilda couldn’t help but feel a great swell of pride at their open-muzzled expressions.

It was as she remembered it from her only other visit as a cub so many years earlier; an enormous Hall with a high ceiling carved entirely out of granite, sometimes stained with dyes or embedded with gems to provide highlights or to mark paths and corridors. It was lined with reverently rendered statues of the great gryphon heroes of the past, with one every ten paces and Paladin guards stationed along the walls every fifty, accompanied by massive murals on the high walls and skylight-studded ceiling showing notable scenes from Gryphon history.

Each historical figure was depicted life-sized in shiny black stone, often with their weapons and armor, and laid behind them in a line towards the wall were a series of granite-mounted exhibits explaining their lives and deeds—explaining to visitors exactly what made them worthy of appearing in the pantheon.

“Whoa…” even Marco’s moodiness seemed to vanish as he took it all in, his brown eyes sweeping back and forth repeatedly. “This is incredible!”

“You said it! But it’s not just griffons—there are ponies in here, too?” Tara pointed at a large equine form much further down the Hall.

“That’s a Saddle Arabian, but yes,” Gilda confirmed. “We honor all those who served us in war and peace, even those belonging to other nations and races. And yes, even if those races were former—or in some rare cases, future—foes.”

“Kinda like General Lafayette, then…” Chris mused as they explored the first few life-sized statues, and the exhibits that accompanied them. When possible, their actual tools, clothes, armor and weapons were displayed, encased in crystal to preserve them for, if not eternity, at least as close as griffons could manage. Some even had one or more of their primary pinions preserved, rotating at eye level in a magical stasis field.

“General who?” Fortrakt asked.

“A foreign military leader who assisted my nation in our War of Independence,” he explained. “He has an entire plaza named after him in our capital city.”

“Oh,” Gilda’s partner answered. “So do you have anything like this in your nation?”

“We have plenty of monuments, but not like this!” he told them, looking to a gratified Gilda like he didn’t know where to go or what to examine first.

“Not even close. These sculptures are exquisite,” Marco admitted, his hand going for his pocket, only to remember—again—that his picture-taking device wasn’t there. “That black stone isn’t granite. What are they made of? Obsidian?” he guessed.

“Solid onyx,” Gilda replied, earning a low whistle from Chris. “A semiprecious stone here that’s easily sculpted and holds magic well, so it can be enchanted to repel both dust and any attempt to damage them. If you try to pull one down or so much as scratch them, you’ll get shocked into unconsciousness, and find yourself facing some very angry Paladins when you awaken.”

“Seriously?” Chris took an involuntary step back from a statue he’d gotten within a single pace of.

“Seriously. You’ll then be hauled before a civilian tribunal, facing charges of desecrating a national monument. If you’re lucky, you might get off lightly by spending just a couple years at hard labor in the mines,” Gilda informed them with a smirk.

“Really,” Tara said dryly, taking out a pad and pencil to start sketching what she saw—she’d already checked with the door guards that photos weren’t allowed, but drawings were. “Considering the past few years, we could have used some of that back home…” she muttered darkly as they passed a statue of Adolphus, a hero from the war with the Kirin Imperium. An upright earth griffon leaning on his war hammer with his wings flared, he stood about half a head taller than the humans around them, his unit’s pendant fluttering from the staff.

“I hear ya.” Marco then raised a hand to touch his statue at the shoulders, causing Paladin heads to turn and their eyes to narrow. “Onyx, huh? It’s beautiful! And he looks so perfectly rendered…”

Before he could reach it, Gilda seized his foreleg and held it in an iron grip, digging in her talons slightly to emphasize her next words. “Don’t… touch!” she warned him in no uncertain terms, reflecting that was the first time she’d touched him since his hand had been on her flight muscles. “Especially not there!”

“Ow!” he exclaimed, causing her to relax her grip, but only fractionally. “What’s the big idea? I wasn’t going to damage it! So what did I do wrong this time?”

“You even have to ask? Never mind the fact that I already told you all exhibits are strictly paws-off, but you were about to put your hands on that tiercel’s shoulders! So how do you think that would have looked to our not-so-friendly green-armored guards?” she asked him quietly but heatedly, not immediately releasing him.

Marco cringed as he took her meaning. “Like… I was molesting the statue of a male gryphon hero?”

“Now you’re learning, Marco,” Gilda smirked, finally letting his arm go. “So if you don’t mind, do us all a big favor and keep your crow-damned paws to yourself!”

“You heard her, Marco,” Tara spoke up, her tone only partly teasing. “Please don’t get us in trouble again because you can’t stop being grabby.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled, shoving his hands hard into his pockets and standing a safe distance back.

A few minutes later, they encountered the first pony of the exhibit. Chris had been practicing reading the placards below each sculpture, and his eyes went wide at what he found. “Whoa! It says she’s… Firefly?” he translated in astonishment.

“Close. She’s Firehawk,” Fortrakt corrected with a grin, pointing with a talon at the syllable he’d gotten wrong. “Firstborn daughter of Captain Firefly. A quarter-century after the War with Equestria ended, she volunteered to join a private army being sent to defend a remote gryphon colony on the Cheetahean Peninsula against the Ibexians, who claimed the entire area belonged to them and threatened to go to war if regular military forces were sent there. Can you translate the rest?”

“Uh… yeah.” Chris did so with some difficulty. “It says she came to serve the Kingdom over her own mother’s vehement objections, risking assassination attempts and death duels from former Imperials to do so—and all because she wanted to forge her own name and destiny apart from her famous mother.”

“Wow. I like her already,” Tara said, now rapidly sketching her. “I take it that she succeeded?”

“You could say that. It says here she ended up saving them more than once from Ibexian and dragon attacks. She stayed even after the colony was secured and ended up founding a separate colony of pegasi there called the… Sevastoponians?” he stumbled slightly over the pronunciation.

“You got it,” Fortrakt confirmed with a grin. “In fact, her descendants are still there along with the colony, around five millennia strong, and they still defend the peninsula against the Ibexians. I’ve met a couple. They’re part of the Kingdom so completely now that they’ve acquired hardier bodies, eat meat, and they don’t even speak Equish anymore.”

“Wow…” was all Tara could say as she let Fortrakt guide her to another hero, listening intently as he described each in turn.

So it went for the next hour as they slowly worked their way further in. The deeper and closer to the center they got, the higher the well-cleaned and well-shined granite floor was raised, step by step, until they reached a large circular dome at the museum’s heart.

“Welcome to the Chamber of Champions,” Gilda said as they gaped anew at the massive hemispherical vault, at the center of which sat a large map of the Kingdom over which flew the Gryphon Flag. Surrounding it were a score of additional onyx-sculpted figures, all facing outwards, forming a symbolic defensive ring against the nation’s foes. “Here are the greatest gryphon heroes of all time, whose deeds were so enormous and far-reaching that they echo down through the ages. Those gryphons—and others—without whom we might not be here today.”

“As she says! Welcome to the Hall’s inner sanctum, my human friends, where our most famous heroes reside!” Fortrakt invited them all forward grandly, then led them to the first statue in line.

“This is Ardanius of the West”, her junior partner said reverently as they stared up at the pedestal-mounted tiercel. “One of our earliest heroes. A millennia and a half ago, he thwarted King Sombra when he tried to expand the Crystal Empire overseas, attempting to invade The Isles of Eagleland as a prelude to conquering the whole of Aresia. But Ardanius rallied the gryphon clans living there and repulsed him quite bloodily, sacrificing his life to throw the evil King’s armies back into the sea.”

“Interesting. But how come he has no face?” Marco asked in confusion, staring at his sculpture’s blank features and only generalized griffon form.

“Because Sombra got so angry at his defeat that he cast a spell to purge both his name and face from all griffon memory,” Fortrakt detailed, to a series of surprised looks. “But it only half-worked. His magic was strong enough to make us forget his appearance, but not his name or his deeds!

“So we don’t know what he looked like, but we know exactly what he did. Sombra tried to make sure we couldn’t remember. But all he did was make sure we’d never forget,” Gilda added, standing up a little straighter as she spoke.

“Not bad,” Chris granted. “Have to say, I like a nation that reveres their history and heroes, instead of just tears them all down for reasons both ignorant and stupid.”

“Who does that?” Fortrakt asked in confusion.

“Don’t ask. So, who’s this eagless?” Tara asked next. She’d definitely been favoring the females, Gilda couldn’t help but notice.

“Lady Arnau,” Gilda answered, reflecting somewhat ruefully that of all the things she thought she’d ever do, being a tour guide for alien visitors was not among them. “The gryphon for whom this city is named. The great leader and defender of the Gryphon race, who unified our fractured society in time to defeat and destroy the Cloven of the Sun.”

“The who?” Marco prompted.

“Don’t ask,” Gilda echoed with a warning glance at Fortrakt before he could answer. “It’s not important. All you need to know is that they tried to wipe us out and got wiped out in return, thanks to her.”

“And this griffon? He looks really important with that cape and chain.” Marco stepped to the next tiercel in line.

“Unquestionably, he was. This is Prelate Salvio Gaius,” Gilda detailed. “He was arguably the greatest griffon military mind of all time. Said to be a strategic genius on par with the pony Sun Master himself, he completely reversed the course of a war we were losing to the Elder Rams, and he was later the commander of all Imperial forces during the war with Equestria. He was so brilliant he even came up with a plan that successfully caged Celestia herself and very nearly overthrew her—not once, but twice.”

“But he didn’t,” Marco pointed out needlessly. “And from what we know, the Empire wasn’t exactly the good guys back then. Even the earlier exhibits we saw seem to admit that. So why is he here?”

“Because we don’t lie or make excuses for our history, whether good or bad,” Gilda said, a little more sharply than she needed when Rainbow’s face flashed through her memory again. “Sorry. Continue,” she invited Fortrakt.

Though giving her an odd look, he did so. “Oh, it’s true that he had some issues. By some reports, he went slowly insane over the years of war from the enormous pressure he was under, to the point that he had to be… removed,” Fortrakt said carefully with a glance at Gilda. “He didn’t survive the war, but his strategies and the reforms he instituted to the Kingdom’s military did. They later saved us.”

“What do you mean?” Tara asked, staring up at the statue’s visage.

“I mean that a decade after the war, we were attacked by the army of Dragon Lord Diabla, who sought revenge for the death of her father, the dread Dragon Lord Kalator, during the war with Equestria.

“Blaming the Kingdom for losing not just him but half their clan by luring them into a fight with Celestia they couldn’t win, she sought to burn the rebuilding but still-vulnerable Kingdom to the ground. It was Prelate Gaius’ reforms, well-thought contingency plans and accurate analysis of her army’s strengths and strategic weaknesses which saved us, enabling a joint pony-griffon force to put an end to her and her army.”

“I don’t know. It says here that his forces committed atrocities against pony civilians, including hostage taking of stallions and summary execution of resistance fighters?” Chris summarized the Aeric text on one of the displays. “He doesn’t sound like a very nice guy, or a genius if his final campaign ended in defeat.”

“No creature’s perfect,” Gilda shrugged dismissively. “Just like every other being in this room, or on this planet—and yours as well, I’m sure. You and I have the benefit of hindsight while Gaius had nothing but an uncertain future to stumble through as best he could.

“He was trying to win an incredibly bitter and bloody war that he saw as critical for the survival of not just the Empire, but our very race, and he served his nation faithfully and honorably—until, perhaps, the very end. A few bad deeds or lost battles don’t erase his many achievements or change the fact he saved us more than once. Wars aren’t won by good character, you know.”

“I get that, but—”

“No buts, Chris.” Gilda shook her head. “If you want a paragon of virtue, I promise you’re not going to find it in the military, or even in this room. Take it from me—if you demand perfection of all your friends and idols, then you won’t have any friends or idols left,” she added with a note of bitterness. Will you ever learn that, Rainbow? she called out mentally to her former friend.

“I guess there’s some truth to that…” Chris muttered.

“Some? There’s a ton of truth in there! Wish I could shove it down the throats of certain folks back home,” Tara remarked in renewed anger as her pencil began scratching harder at her latest sketch. Then she caught herself, realizing Fortrakt was staring at her in some concern. “Sorry, it’s just that… never mind.”

“And this one? Chris stopped beside yet another sculpture of gleaming onyx, which depicted a very strong and sleek-looking griffon tiercel in full battle armor with crossed swords over his back. “From what I read earlier back in the main hall, he looks like a…” he trailed off, seeming to Gilda like he was struggling to remember the term.

“A Talaeus. Our most elite warriors, sometimes referred to in Equish as Red Talons. Correct. This is Prelate Layan Kaval,” Fortrakt said reverently, then stepped back and saluted him, along with Gilda. “Adjudant and successor to Salvio Gaius, he was a Talaeus commander who is said to be the greatest gryphon warrior who ever lived. He was as close to unbeatable as there is! More than once he took down a full-grown dragon, and he could even fight wing to wing with Captain Firefly herself!”

“Huh,” Chris said as he took pains to read the text. “It says that when the Empire fell, he returned the battle-hardened army he now led to Aresia and drove out the Ibexians, who had invaded to take advantage of depleted griffon numbers after four years of war, serving his new Queen as faithfully as he had the Empress?” He looked to Fortrakt for confirmation.

“Well-read, Chris. That was a perfect translation! He was also instrumental in both defeating Diabla and cementing our alliance with the ponies after, as he left the military following her defeat and served as Ambassador to Equestria for the next thirty years. Hey, did you know my clan traces our bloodline back to him?” he asked them all wistfully.

“Oh, please.” Gilda rolled her eyes. “Seriously, Fortrakt? Half the Kingdom claims lineage to him! Even though he only had three cubs.”

“And eight grandcubs. All of whom were magnificent fighters as well!” He didn’t get any less excited. “And then there’s his mate…” Fortrakt led Tara to another eagless flanking him, this one as large as a lioness. “This is Marquis Kamilya Ampok. Go on, Chris, read her story!” he invited eagerly.

Chris did so, though it took him a minute to translate and absorb it all. “Holy shit…” he used the human invective again, which Gilda found confusing—what in the crows was holy about excrement?

“This is incredible. It says here that she had a wing crippled in combat with the Elder Rams and was left only barely able to fly, but she was still all but unbeatable in a fight, rising to the rank of Legate? That’s roughly equal to a Major General, from what I know.”

“Impressive, but is that all she’s here for?” Marco asked in some confusion. Gilda noted that he was afraid to approach the sculptures, keeping his hands in his pockets. “Doesn’t seem like enough.”

“Not even close. She’s here because she disobeyed Imperial orders she found dishonorable and refused to renounce her actions afterwards, even when faced with execution by being brought before the Empress herself! Though she was spared, her name was shamed, and she spent the next twelve years at hard labor in the mines, surviving it alive and unbroken despite innumerable deprivations and assassination attempts.

“And then when the war with the ponies came, she declined amnesty and an offer to join a Talaeus team being put together to counter the pony Bolt Knights, saying she would rather die in the mines than fight for an Empire she no longer found honorable.”

“Whoa…” Marco stared up at her in awe. “Sounds like she had some serious balls.”

Gilda had figured out by then that ‘balls’ was a human euphemism for a male sac; what the ponies would term ‘horse apples’. She found she much preferred the human term but kept the thought to herself as Chris went on.

“There’s more. She later escaped to lead an internal uprising against the Empire that eventually overthrew it, restoring the Kingdom that the Empire had usurped a century before. She then negotiated the end of the war with Equestria on behalf of the new Queen and eventually married Layan Kaval there, gaining the title of Marquis and never leaving his side. He once said that she was the only eagless worthy of him, not just for her considerable skill in combat but for her superb intellect, enormous honor, and sheer force of will.”

“In short, she set right many wrongs and restored honor to the gryphon nation,” Gilda summarized. “In short, she defined honor and set the example for every generation to come. She’s not perfect, but she’s probably as close as you’ll find in this room to a true paragon of virtue, Chris,” she noted to him.

“Nice,” Tara said, staring up at her statue, scratching a quick sketch of her as well. “A truly powerful female who accomplished great deeds without a single complaint about being kept down? I wish I could have met her.”

“You and me both,” Gilda agreed, wondering if she could have done any of that in the famous eagless’s place. Well, definitely not a couple years ago…

“You know, this is all really interesting, but it strikes me that every single individual we see here is a military leader or warrior. Aren’t there any artists or scientists or any other, more peaceful professions represented?” Chris wondered aloud. “I only ask because I’m a scientist myself.”

“Oh, there are, but one thing you’ll find about our history is that we’ve had to fight constantly to keep our borders and even our very existence,” Fortrakt replied as they walked to the next statue. “Historically, we’ve been surrounded by a lot of hostile races, so it’s only natural that military service figures prominently.”

They then stopped beside a statue of a much smaller gryphon, who was only half the size of most of the other tiercels in the room, belying the twin swords on his unarmored back. “But if you want a hero who did as much for the Kingdom in peace as well as war? Then here’s your gryphon.”

“Gavian… Ravenoff?” Chris read the inscription. “But he’s so small!”

“Small in stature, but very large in our history,” Fortrakt said in a tone of pure reverence. “Of everygryphon here, he’s my favorite. I’ve been in here like twenty times, and I always go into his personal exhibit hall,” he said with a nod towards the back wall, where the tiled line from Gavian Ravenoff’s sculpture led to his individual exhibit room.

“Twenty times, Fortrakt?” Gilda smirked. “That’s not obsessive at all.”

“Well, some of us like to know our history, Decurion!” he huffed. “I know we can’t do all the individual hero exhibits in a single afternoon, so why not show them his?”

“Fine,” Gilda agreed, if only to shut him up for a bit—he’d been talking nonstop ever since they’d come in. “You know, I had no idea you were so dweeby about these things, cub.” She couldn’t resist a tease, even in the presence of the humans.

“And I had no idea you were such an old and grumpy crow about them!” he promptly retaliated, to some snickers from their human guests as they took the walk over, following the path set in the floor.

When they arrived, they found a large and well-lit antechamber dedicated to his life, with many paintings beside which Aeric text explained the scenes. There were also two impassive Paladins stationed inside, standing to either side of the entrance, casting a wary eye over their human guests as they entered but making no move against them.

The first thing that caught their attention was not the paintings, or the Paladin guards, but a centerpiece exhibit Illuminated by a shaft of sunlight spearing through the ceiling. It was a pedestal upon which sat a single large diamond, floating in the air and slowly rotating, gleaming and glittering in the sunbeam. Below it, encased in clear crystal was a small set of Talaeus armor clearly fitted for him, and a single scimitar with two diagonal red stripes across the base of its blade, under which was…

“Wait—is that a brush?” Chris pointed down at it.

“You got it! You like to draw, Tara? Well, Gavian Ravenoff was an artist,” Fortrakt explained, sounding to Gilda like a giddy cub. “His story did not have a happy start. He was abandoned by his parents for his small size, and forced to steal and scavenge from age six. Unwanted and uneducated, he ended up joining a gryphon raider gang out of desperation and was captured by the ponies during a raid on one of their border bases.”

He went on quickly, not giving Chris the chance to read the placard that contained the story he was relating; Gilda gained the distinct impression that her junior partner knew it all by heart. “The Empire then tried to kill him, but the ponies protected him, so he defected and threw his lot in with them. They fed, educated and trained him, and they found him so honorable and eager that he was later adopted as a son by the base’s commander—Firefly herself!”

“By Firefly?” the three humans chorused incredulously—they’d apparently learned all about her during their time in Equestria, she noted.

“I know, right? He later wrote that the ponies let him know friendship and family for the first time, and he loved them all because of it. Then when war came, he openly sided with Equestria and fought against the Empire using a hybrid combat style he’d invented with the help of the ponies. He fought at his adoptive mother’s side in many early battles, later helping to train pony troops and liaise with Imperial dissidents—at one point, he even induced an entire Auxiliary Guard unit to defect!

“Though considered a traitor by many, even by some to this day, he was a gryphon through and through, saying later he wanted to see the Empire he so hated overthrown ‘so cubs and nations would not suffer as he and Equestria had’. He became an emissary between our two nations after the war; an example to both sides that the other was not as bad as they’d been told. Some say he’s the first true friend between our races.”

“Okay. But where does art come into that?” Tara seemed subdued at the story, which Gilda had only remembered bits and pieces of until Fortrakt refreshed her memory.

“Because he was not just a warrior, but a completely self-trained artist who later ran Celestia’s famous art academy in Canterlot, and once his griffon citizenship was restored over objections by Queen Jeyenne, he came to the Kingdom to establish such schools here!

“He single-wingedly rekindled interest in our lost arts and re-founded all our abolished artisan guilds! Painting, sculpting, theatre, even cooking—he brought it all back a century after the Empire had expunged it! You’re looking at one of his two swords, and one of the actual brushes he used to paint—his other sword resides at his monument at the Royal Art Academy in Canterlot. In fact, several of the large ceiling murals you saw outside were his!”

“Not bad. But wait—I thought you said he fought against the Empire? But in that picture, he’s fighting a pony!” Tara pointed out as she stared at a very detailed painting on the wall behind them. It showed a battered and bleeding Gavian—he had leopard hindquarters and falcon feathers—in what looked like Cloudsdale, facing off with an equally injured but far larger pony pegasus stallion wearing wingblades around whom electricity crackled.

It looked to Gilda like they’d been dueling to the death for some time, with Gavian in a two-legged pouncing crouch poised to draw his sword in a rapid slash; the text beneath it explained that it depicted the duel’s end, when he was about to meet—and defeat—his opponent’s final attack.

“He’s fighting a demon,” Fortrakt corrected sharply, his emerald eyes narrowing and voice turning ice cold. “His opponent is the pony known as Thunderbolt.”

Their guests blinked. “You mean the Equestrian war hero?” Chris asked as Gilda stayed carefully silent, not certain she wanted to speak up on the subject for reasons both personal and professional.

“I mean the Equestrian war criminal,” Fortrakt corrected, an angry edge to his voice that Gilda had never heard from him before. “He may be a hero to the ponies, but he’s nothing more than a mass murderer to us. He hated gryphons and swore to slay any he saw on sight. He slaughtered hundreds of civilians, even cubs, and he didn’t care!”

“A pony did that?” Tara gave him an incredulous look.

“Yes, a pony! Powered by bloodlust and all but invincible in combat, even our best soldiers and assassins couldn’t stop him. But Gavian Ravenoff—who at the time was but a small gryphon only sixteen years old—could! Armed with only a single sword and his own unique fighting style, he defeated him in single combat!”

“Huh? But he’s so small! How’d he manage that?” Chris asked, still staring at the painting.

“We can show you!” Fortrakt promised, leading them towards the sunlight-illuminated crystal on a pedestal in the center. “Read the inscription, Chris!”

“Uh…” He did so, squinting at the placard beneath the rotating gem, and then blinked hard. “If I’m interpreting this correctly, it says this contains the actual memories of a disguised ‘Raven’ witness to his duel with Thunderbolt? And invites visitors to witness those memories in turn to understand how great his deed truly was?” he translated dubiously as Fortrakt nodded vigorously. “But that doesn’t make sense. What’s a ‘Raven’? And how do you ‘witness’ someone else’s memories?”

“Like this!” Not waiting for permission from Gilda, who was already having some serious reservations of whether it would be a good idea, Fortrakt went to the mounted crystal holding recorded memories and reared up to pass his talons over the shaft of sunlight that illuminated it. The room then went dark as the firegems lowered their illumination level and the skylight above closed, followed by the gem itself beginning to glow. “See for yourself!”

“What do you mean?” Marco asked, staring at the gem warily.

“Exactly what I said!’' Fortrakt replied eagerly as the glow of the crystal intensified and began to project a moving image into the air. “What you’re about to see is a memory recording of their duel taken from the early days of the war, seven centuries old.” Startled, their human guests then hurriedly backed away to watch as the diamond began projecting the sounds and sights of that night, as seen through the eyes of an anonymous eagless.

“I’ve seen this twenty times, and it never gets old! You’re going to love this! So just stand back and watch what some say is the greatest duel victory in all of gryphon history…”