Of Witches and Wind
ou would think, if you were battling ice griffins, you would want your best fighters on your side. Or at least someone with experience. These creatures—half bald eagle, half snow leopard—weren’t exactly a picnic. Most kids could avoid their giant hooked beaks, the talons on the feathery front legs, and the claws on the furry hind legs, but what you really needed to worry about was their breath. Each griffin could breathe out air so cold that it would freeze puddles into ice slicks under your feet.
But the eighth graders wanted to fight this flock all by themselves.
The ice griffins herded them together in front of the soccer goal. If an eighth grader tried to stab one, the griffin just flapped its wings a couple times and dodged into the sky. Our guys were completely trapped.
“Wow. This is going to end so well,” I said.
“We should really follow the Director’s orders,” said Lena, my best friend. “You know, keep looking.”
“Just a sec. Seeing this gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside,” said Chase, my other best friend. His dad, Jack, a big-deal warrior, kept track of how many dragons, griffins, and trolls Chase slayed on every mission. So getting demoted to backup was
harder on him than it was on most of us seventh graders.
We all attended Ever After School, a program for fairy tale Characters-in-training, which met every weekday after school let out. We would all survive our own Tale someday, but in the meantime, we trained. Sometimes we even went on missions to make sure magical creatures didn’t attack any innocent bystanders. Usually, that meant fighting dragons or ice griffins sent to kill some Character EAS hadn’t discovered yet.
Like now. Earlier this afternoon, the Director of EAS had received a report that ice griffins had attacked an all-girls boarding school on Lake Michigan, and she’d given the eighth graders the mission. We lowly seventh graders were just supposed to find the new Character who was under attack.
Seniority was stupid.
A roar thundered across the field. The lion head of the chimera, the flock’s three-headed captain, had given an order. The griffins stopped herding, but it didn’t matter. The eighth graders were completely surrounded. The snake head wiggled a little, another signal—three griffins shrieked straight at the ground. The puddle underneath them turned to ice, and suddenly the tight knot of warriors twisted and wobbled like they were all simultaneously trying on roller skates for the first time.
I groaned. This was actually painful to watch.
Normally, some people from the boarding school might have come out to investigate all this noise on their soccer field, but we were lucky. Lake Michigan was extremely foggy. We only caught a glimpse of their brick buildings every few minutes. If any students or teachers heard all this shouting, then they probably just thought someone was having an extra-epic soccer game. I wasn’t sure what they would think of all the roaring, shrieking, and bleating.
Two eighth graders slipped and landed facedown on the ice.
The chimera’s goat head bleated. A half dozen griffins leaped into the air and swooped down at their victims, talons and claws outstretched. A few eighth graders screamed.
“Can we help yet?” Chase yelled at Hansel, EAS’s sword master. He was also our chaperone for this mission, but, lounging by the bleachers, he didn’t look too concerned that the eighth graders were losing.
“Bryan, you’re the smallest, fastest, and tastiest. Use that to your advantage!” Hansel shouted. The eighth grader whose Tale had turned him into a fawn darted out of the ring. He squeezed between two griffins and cantered as fast as his hooves could carry him. The walking, talking venison was obviously too snackworthy for three griffins to resist. They broke rank and swooped after him, despite the chimera’s protesting roars, bleats, and hisses. The eighth graders started fighting their way out.
In all the commotion, one eighth grader in a bright red blazer was too busy not slipping to get his spear up. Seeing the opening, an ice griffin closed its talons over his shoulders and lifted him bodily away from his classmates.
“Crap!” Chase said, and Lena gasped and clutched my arm. My hand closed over my sword hilt, like that would help.
“Go after Ben,” Hansel told us, pointing. The kid in red screamed as the griffin carried him across the field toward Lake Michigan. “Make sure he doesn’t drown.”
And so we were demoted to lifeguards.
We sprinted forward before we lost Ben in the fog. Lena pulled out in front. The grass under our feet gave way to sand. We scrambled down a dune toward the shore.
Ben yelled again.
“Poor sucker,” Chase said. “His second day at EAS and he gets kidnapped by an ice griffin.”
The kidnapper in question glided straight past the beach and over the lake.
“We can’t follow them over water!” Lena cried.
The fog was thicker here. All we could see now was a silhouette of ten-foot wings and kicking legs. Plus one long pointy thing. “Ben! You still have your spear! Use it!” I said.
“Aim for the wing joints!” Then Chase added, much more quietly, “And hope you don’t break your neck hitting the lake.”
I didn’t think of that. Maybe he hadn’t heard—
Ben grabbed his spear with both hands and jerked it upward into the feathery chest. The ice griffin shrieked and released him. I gulped hard, watching Ben drop. I hated heights more than most people.
“He has a better chance of surviving that fall than—” Lena winced, interrupted by a huge splash. Ben was in the water. The fog made it impossible to see exactly where he fell in. “—the griffin taking him back to her nest.”
“Ben!” I said. We sprinted across the sand to the water. “Ben! Shout back if you can!”
No answer. I put a finger on my nose and glanced at my friends. I didn’t want to be the one who went in after him. It was cold here.
Lena caught on, her finger on her nose. “Not it!”
“Awesome. Thanks, guys.” Chase kicked off his sneakers.
He was moving so slowly. I’d seen him muzzle dragons faster than he was unbuckling his sword belt. “Ben could drown, you know. If he’s unconscious,” I said.
“Nah. He probably just had the wind knocked out of him.” Chase shoved his sword, jacket, and shoes into my hands and waded into the lake.
“I’ll check this way,” I told Lena, heading left.
She ran right. “Ben!”
For anyone looking for a kid who might have swum to shore on his own, fog doesn’t really help. It muffled my shouts, and every slap of waves sounded like Ben splashing back onto the beach. I nearly ran into a boulder, but I didn’t find him.
I had just started wondering if the others had had any luck, when Chase called from the water, “Let me know if you’ve got him!”
“He’s not here!” Lena shouted, so far away that I could barely hear her.
“Ben! BEN!” I hadn’t meant what I’d said about drowning, but the idea didn’t seem so crazy suddenly. Trying not to panic, I listened harder, past the chimera’s roars, the griffin squawks, and the waves.
“Here.” The voice came from behind me. It definitely wasn’t Ben—it belonged to a girl. I turned around, listening again, and the voice said louder, “Here!”
I ran back, and near a clump of stones I’d searched a minute before, I spotted two figures. But by the time I reached them, only Ben was there—his jacket covered with wet clumps of sand.
“Found him!” I shouted happily.
He vomited water, on his hands and knees, eyes squeezed shut. He had also lost one shoe. His rescuer had disappeared.
“Thank gumdrops!” Lena cried, through the fog.
“So, I got all wet for nothing?” Chase shouted, but he sounded relieved too.
Ben wiped his mouth and drew a shaky breath.
“Anything broken?” I asked him anxiously.
“My lungs, maybe,” Ben wheezed without looking up. Then he threw up some more.
Chase splashed out of the water beside us. “Sense of humor’s intact. I bet this one’s going to live.”
“Who rescued you?” I asked Ben.
Ben frowned. “A girl. Long dark hair. Great swimmer.”
That didn’t sound like anyone on this mission. “Did you recognize her?”
“Not precisely,” Ben said. “She might be a student here.”
“Give him a break, Rory.” Dripping, Chase squatted down beside the eighth grader. “The kid was busy drowning.”
“Well, that explains the huge splash,” said someone behind us. Adelaide, one of my least favorite seventh graders at EAS. “We were wondering.”
Four figures marched down the beach, their bows and quivers slung over their shoulders—Adelaide, Daisy, Tina, and Vicky. They were the seventh-grade archer squadron. I liked the last two the best. Tina’s dad and Vicky’s mom had just gotten married in January. They spent a lot of time bickering over who would be Cinderella and who would be the ugly stepsister. Daisy just did whatever Adelaide said.
“We heard all the shouting and came to see what was up.” Tina whirled around suddenly, bow raised, like she’d heard something behind her. But it was only Lena, sprinting along the water.
Chase carefully peeled Ben’s red blazer away from his shoulder. “Just two talon punctures. Your shoulder pads took the brunt of it. Once we get back to EAS, we’ll get you fixed up before you get home.”
“Did you guys find the Snow Queen’s target?” Vicky asked.
Lena shook her head and glanced at me. She knew my stomach always flip-flopped whenever that name came up.
The Director had never mentioned it, but every Character at
EAS knew: Only one villain commanded armies of ice griffins and dragons—Solange, the Snow Queen. During the war that had lasted half of the twentieth century, she’d almost wiped out everyone who opposed her, including all Characters. These days she was locked up in the Glass Mountain, but apparently that didn’t stop her from sending monsters after defenseless kids.
“Ooooooh! I forgot!” Lena started digging in the tiny electric-blue backpack she carried everywhere.
It always worried me when she did that. Since she was a magic inventor, Lena’s bag of tricks was more unpredictable than the average seventh grader’s. Once, in the Boston Common park, when we were flushing out the troll that lived under the bridge, she whispered a spell to a painted dragon scale, and a phoenix as big as a limo flew across the sky, a riot of flame and feathers. She told us it was the most beautiful light show she could whip up on short notice. Since trolls can’t resist pretty things, she guaranteed that the trick would lure the troll straight to us. Which it did, but every other troll in a ten-mile radius came too.
Humans can’t do magic. That was one of the first things the grown-ups told you when you joined EAS.
But every rule has exceptions, and Lena was one of them.
Lena becoming a magician was the weirdest thing that had happened since we’d climbed the beanstalk last May. Melodie, the golden harp we took from the giant’s safe, had taught Lena a whole bunch of spells, where she could use dragon scales, phoenix feathers, or unicorn hair like magic batteries. Usually, Lena enchanted them to power new inventions.
All Lena’s searching woke up Melodie. She stuck her golden head out of Lena’s backpack and yawned. “What is it you’re looking for, Mistress?”
“Got it!” Lena waved a fabric-covered square triumphantly in our faces. It kind of looked like an e-reader cover, but I knew from experience that the hard casing held a square mirror. An M3, to be exact—the EAS version of a walkie-talkie. “My mini magic mirror.”
“Big whoop.” Adelaide never missed a chance to criticize us. She had been Chase’s closest friend before Lena got the Beanstalk Tale, so we definitely knew why. “You invented those back at Thanksgiving. You can’t expect us to still be impressed.”
“When was the last time you invented something, Adelaide?” I snapped.
“I’ve been modifying the mirrors.” Lena’s eyes gleamed behind her glasses. She was obviously too excited to get her feelings hurt. “I’m trying to give them new capabilities, so they can do anything smartphones can do.”
“Text?” Tina said, interested.
“Tetris?” Vicky asked, impressed.
“No, not those,” Lena said, in a smaller voice.
The others looked disappointed, so Melodie sniffed. “All practical uses.”
Lena just opened the M3 and muttered something in Fey. Chase, the only other kid in earshot who spoke that language, burst out laughing.
I sensed a joke. “What?”
“Don’t you dare translate, Chase Turnleaf,” Melodie warned. “If you do, Lena and I will turn you into something small and slithery. Like a salamander. We just perfected that potion.”
For someone about a foot tall and attached to a golden harp without legs, Melodie could be really scary when she felt like it. Chase abruptly stopped laughing.
“Tell me later?” I whispered to him.
“Do I look like I want to turn into a salamander?” Chase whispered back. “If she’d said frog, I would’ve considered it. ‘The Frog Prince’ isn’t a bad Tale.”
Ben laughed, but then he choked a little and brought up another round of puke. My chest squeezed in sympathy.
“Wow,” Adelaide said mildly. “Did you swallow half the lake?”
Lena angled the M3 at Ben and his watery bile. His face was nearly as red as his jacket.
“Geez, Lena.” I pushed the magic camera down with maybe more force than was necessary. The paparazzi had recorded enough of my ugliest memories for me to know that it sucked. “Do you have to film this?”
But Ben perked up. “You filmed it? Did you get the whole thing?”
“I wish.” With a sigh Lena swung the M3 around, toward the eighth graders’ fight. The wind thinned the fog, and past the lumpy dunes and half the soccer field we caught a glimpse of feathers. “I just turned it on.”
“How far did I fall?” Ben asked eagerly.
“Fifty feet or more,” Chase said.
“Really?” Ben sat up with a wince. He actually sounded pleased with himself.
Adelaide and Daisy both rolled their eyes.
“You’re gonna be one big bruise tomorrow,” Chase said, with the air of someone bequeathing bragging rights.
“I don’t think it’s very funny.” The voice came from the lake, so soft that you could barely hear it. “He was underwater for a long time.”
We all turned. A girl splashed to shore, water dripping from her plaid skirt and jacket. Her long black hair was the kind that got very wavy when wet—but it made her look elegant, not scruffy.
She had the beginning of a tan, which gave her skin a golden sheen, and her light blue, long-lashed eyes took up most of her heart-shaped face.
She was beautiful. Not just normal beautiful, but too pretty to feel real. Like a sculpture, or a painting, or an airbrushed photo.
She didn’t seem to notice that everyone was staring at her with dumbfounded expressions. Even Ben’s mouth hung open. We weren’t used to kids outside EAS approaching us on missions, and definitely not ones who looked like models for school-uniform catalogues.
“Who are you?” Adelaide shook her blond hair back. She only did that when she felt threatened.
“My name is Mia,” the dripping girl said uncertainly.
“You’re the girl who saved me!” Ben burst out.
I did a double take. Mia didn’t seem like the rescuing type.
Encouraged, Mia slipped out of the water and glided to Ben’s side. She held out something oblong and leather—his missing loafer. “You lost this.”
“Right,” Chase said. “Because that makes sense. Diving back into Lake Michigan to rescue his shoe.”
I personally thought this was a fair point, but Ben shot to his feet in knight-in-shining-armor mode. “She saved my life. That doesn’t happen every day.”
Poor new kid. After he spent more time at EAS, somebody saving his life wouldn’t impress him so much.
“She might be the Character we’ve been looking for,” Lena said distractedly. She was busy glaring at her M3. “It’s too foggy. We won’t be able to record anything this way.”
“Maybe if we got a little closer, Mistress,” Melodie suggested.
“Good idea.” Lena hurried toward the dunes between the shore and the soccer field.
Adelaide turned to the other archers. “Who has the mirror the Director gave us? For the test?” Tina and Vicky both pointed at Daisy, who pushed her arrows aside and reached into her quiver.
The chimera roared extra loud, and I glanced back toward the battle—all I saw were dunes, fog, more fog, and a soggy stretch of grass.
But Chase tensed too. He took his sword belt back and buckled it on.
“Test?” Mia asked, drawing closer to Ben.
“It’s not hard. You just look into a magic mirror and tell us what you see in it,” Ben explained.
I was sure Mia would never suspect that he had just taken the test himself three days ago. “We need to know if you’re a Char—”
“Incoming!” one of the eighth graders called.
The chimera galloped across midfield as fast as its lion paws could carry it, all three heads focused straight on us.
I dropped Chase’s stuff and hurriedly drew my sword.
“Oy! Monster!” cried Ben.
Snorting, Chase unsheathed his blade. “Did you seriously just say that?”
Only one Character stood between us and the charging chimera, and she was too absorbed with her updated M3 to draw her sword.
Chase and I erupted forward. The second my hand curled around the sword hilt, my body seemed very far away, like someone else was moving for me. This was normal. I had an enchanted sword. This runner’s-high feeling happened every time the magic kicked in.
“I got it.” Chase ran so fast he practically skimmed over the sand. “You go cover Lena.”
The sword’s magic sent me weaving through the dunes to Lena’s side, right at the edge of the soccer field. Her eyes were still glued to her M3. “Rory, you have to see this!”
“The image is so clear,” Melodie added.
They clearly hadn’t noticed the chimera barreling over the grass, twenty-five feet away and closing.
“Lena, we’ve got company!” I tried to tug her back through the dunes. She would be safer behind the archers.
“No, I can’t move—” Then she glanced up and found herself practically face to face with a three-headed monster. “Oh!”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” Chase charged out, and, seeing him on the field, the chimera slowed. Its snake head hissed. “Yeah, you know it’s all over for you—don’t you, ugly?”
Lena dashed back through the dunes and behind the archers before Chase and the chimera even came to blows. She wasn’t the fastest runner in seventh grade for nothing.
When I was halfway to the others, Chase said, “Crap!”
I whirled around and raised my sword, its magic thrumming.
But Chase wasn’t hurt. The chimera leaped from the edge of the grass to the nearest dune. It had gotten past him.
He sprinted after it. “I still got it, Rory!”
The chimera glanced at Adelaide, Daisy, and the stepsisters, their arrows notched to their bows, and then closer to the water, where Ben just watched. His mouth was open. Mia peeked nervously around him.
The new kid didn’t even have a weapon.
“It’s after Ben and Mia!” Lena cried, panicky, but I was already running, racing the monster as it bounded over the sand.
The stepsisters recovered fastest. They loosed their arrows. The chimera’s lion head yowled as it dodged, but it gave me the extra two seconds I needed.
I tackled Mia and Ben, knocking them to the sand an instant before the chimera pounced.
Somebody’s bare elbow struck my cheekbone, right outside my eye, but the three-headed monster sailed over us—so close that its tufted tail brushed my neck.
I scrambled to my feet as the chimera landed half in the water. Its goat head bleated angrily, and the back legs bent. It was ready to attack again.
“Rory, I said I got it,” said Chase, somewhere behind me. He still wasn’t close enough to do any slaying.
The chimera leaped.
My body knelt, and the sword’s magic guided the blade straight into the monster’s heart. Chase’s sword flashed above, and the beast gave a wet sort of roar-bleat. Two somethings thumped to the sand with a squish.
The chimera collapsed on the beach, a couple feet away from its goat and lion heads. Gross, but definitely dead.
I straightened slowly. “Is everybody okay?”
“Do you recall those talon punctures?” Wincing, Ben reached into his red jacket. “I’m almost positive they have sand in them now. But,” he added hastily when I opened my mouth to apologize, “better sand than a chimera bite.”
Mia gingerly sat up. Her skirt had a palm-size rip out of the hem, stained black at the edges, but otherwise she seemed all right.
Lena ran over, biting her lip.
Chase scowled at me. “What part of ‘I got it’ do you not understand?”
I knew what he was really upset about. Whoever slayed the chimera got the most bragging rights. I smirked. “You were too slow.”
“Still my kill,” Chase said.
“No, this round goes to Rory. When you’re beheading a chimera, you have to make sure you get all three heads. You missed one, Chase. It took a bite out of Mia’s clothes.” Melodie pointed a golden hand at the body. Between the fangs of the viper head, a plaid patch flapped in the breeze.
“But it was two-thirds dead by the time Rory got it,” Chase protested, and I snorted.
“Who are you people?” Mia said, voice shaking.
“It’s okay.” Ben squeezed her hand. I bet the gesture would have been ten times more comforting if his fingers hadn’t been streaked with blood. “The chimera’s their leader. Hansel told us earlier that the ice griffins always scatter after the chimera is killed—”
Something Jeep-size swooped down out of the fog, shrieking. Everybody ducked automatically. Except for Chase, who leaped up and sliced once at the monster’s white throat.
The ice griffin thudded onto the sand beside the chimera. Its spotted tail twitched once and then was still.
Chase grinned. “That one was definitely mine.”
“They’re coming!” Adelaide aimed her bow straight up. A dozen griffins sailed across the soccer field toward us. “God. Didn’t the eighth graders kill any of them?”
“They’re supposed to scatter. Why aren’t they scattering?” Ben said, eyes wide.
“The snake head wasn’t trying to bite Mia,” I said, realizing. “It was marking her.”
Mia gasped. Ben shoved her behind him, which seemed equally gallant and useless.
“Archers, aim for the wings!” Chase said. “Where are the spears when we need them?”
“Coming!” cried someone down the beach.
It is extremely hard to run with a spear and not stab the guy running next to you, but the seventh-grade spear squadron—the Zipes triplets and Paul Stockton—managed it. Very impressive, considering Paul had only been at EAS a couple months.
“I want two of you defending them.” Chase pointed to Ben and Mia. “She’s the Snow Queen’s target. Rory, you help them. The other two, help me finish off the griffins our archers bring down.”
“Got it.” Something flapped behind me. I whirled around, heart sinking. “Three more incoming! Lakeside.” They were close, just a hundred feet away, fifty, moving so fast the fog rippled away from their wings.
I lifted my sword, but at the last second all three griffins plowed into the lake at once and sent an enormous wave crashing over our heads.
I choked on a lungful of water.
When I opened my eyes, my throat raw with coughing, the griffin was ten feet from me. It knelt down, breathing its icy breath across the puddle. I darted forward, swung my sword two-handed like a baseball bat, and sheared its head from its feathery shoulders, but I was too late—the beach was already frozen. The griffins were trying to screw us up the same way they’d dealt with the eighth graders.
Unfortunately for the griffins, we seventh graders had more experience fighting on ice. And we had a magician.
“I’m on it!” Feet planted far apart, Lena dug through her backpack again.
With quick measured slides, like I was wearing ice skates, I
hurried back toward the fight, three times slower than normal.
The archer’s bows twanged. From the shrieks above us, I guessed their arrows were hitting their marks.
“Okay, raise your hand if you want spikes on your sneakers!” Melodie shouted over the griffin cries. “We need to know how many dragon scales to use!”
“We all do.” Chase leaped on the back of a griffin as it frantically flapped its arrow-riddled wings ten feet above the sand. He stabbed its neck and hopped off before the dead griffin hit the ground. Someday he would have to teach me how to jump that high. “And what kind of idiot is going to raise his hand during a battle?”
Ben sheepishly dropped his raised hand.
Lena held out what looked like three mini CDs, colored green and gold, and shouted another Fey spell. As the dragon scales crumpled in her hands, spikes sprouted on the soles of every seventh grader’s shoes.
“Thanks, Lena.” I could run again. I sprinted straight for the new kids.
Kevin Zipes’s spear was pinned under a dead ice griffin. He struggled to free it, glancing back anxiously at Ben and Mia, but three more flockmates closed in.
The runner’s high came back. I ducked under the closest one and slashed at the belly, where the brown feathers gave way to leopard spots. It screamed above me, but by the time it turned around, I had already moved on. I stabbed the next griffin in the ribs, but when it clawed at me, I dodged at the last second. The blow fell on the first griffin.
The third one bit toward me and pinned my blade in its beak. Great. Of course I’d get stuck fighting a smart griffin.
I kicked it in the throat, hoping it would let go, but the spikes on my shoes barely knocked any feathers loose. The griffin tugged, almost yanking me off my feet, but then an arrow thunked into its forehead.
“Yes!” Tina cried behind me, bow in hand, as the griffin keeled over. “Did I get the last one?”
I looked up, surprised. The icy beach was littered with seventeen bodies, arrows poking out of most of them.
“Is it over already?” Ben said, still crouched in front of Mia. Both of her hands were clamped over her mouth, her face white.
Another griffin soundlessly glided up behind them, almost fast enough, but Paul threw his spear, nailing it in the feathery chest. Its wings hit the water with a slap.
“That was the last one,” Paul said, smirking.
An eighth grader limped out of the fog. Kenneth, their best fighter. He was furious. “You didn’t leave us any?”