A Hint of Hydra
Lailu stepped onto a stony outcropping, trying not to think about the thousand-foot drop beneath her. The autumn winds slammed into her back, threatening to throw her to her untimely death. And even though she had a harness securing her, something about that thin leather and rope just did not invite trust.
“Okay there, Pigtails?” asked her mentor and business partner, Master Slipshod, his graying hair blowing around his head.
“Of—of course.” Lailu glanced down, then inched backward, feeling the weight of all that space between her and the thin ribbon of river below.
Master Slipshod smiled reassuringly as the man beside him fiddled with his harness. “Trust me, Caramel here—”
“Carbon. The name is Carbon. As I repeatedly tell you.” Carbon’s bald head gleamed as he finished adjusting the straps around Slipshod’s waist and chest. He usually wore a large black bowler hat, but the wind had taken it almost immediately. Between the long climb up, the lost hat, and Slipshod’s repeated insistence on calling him “Caramel,” it was clear Carbon’s patience was unraveling faster than a plate full of vibber pasta. Lailu got the distinct impression that he didn’t like either of them and wouldn’t be bothered one bit by their deaths. Not the most comforting feeling when his invention was all that stood between her and a long fall.
“Carbon knows what he’s doing,” Slipshod continued cheerfully. “Isn’t that right, my good man? And so kind of you to set us up with these.”
Carbon grumbled something under his breath. Lailu caught the words “Starling” and “favor.”
Oh yes, that was the other reason Lailu didn’t trust the harnesses. They had been a “gift” from Starling Volan, the leader of the local up-and-coming scientists. Even though the scientists seemed quite capable of overcoming the impossible with their inventions involving steam and clockwork engines, Lailu felt they were up to no good. Nothing had been proven against them, but she knew they were the ones responsible for kidnapping elves and experimenting on their blood a few months ago. And she wasn’t sure why they were suddenly so keen on outfitting her and Slipshod with new gadgets. It almost felt like a bribe, and it gave Lailu a bad taste in her mouth.
Carbon flicked a switch on the metal gadget attached to the front of Slipshod’s harness. It began vibrating ominously.
“Um, is it supposed to make that sound?” Lailu asked.
“Yes, yes, of course, of course,” Carbon snapped. “You should be all set, Sullivan. If you’d care to try it?” Carbon adjusted the spectacles on his pinched face and stepped back.
“Watch this, Pigtails.” With a whoop of pure glee, Slipshod leaped backward off the cliff. For a few panicked moments, Lailu saw him plummeting to his death.
But the harness held, and his plummeting turned into a gentle downward drift.
“Your turn, your turn.” Carbon waved his hands impatiently until Lailu inched toward him. He double-checked the straps that looped around her thighs and made sure the belt they were attached to was secure. “Keep that tight, or if you flip upside down, you’ll fall right out,” he advised.
“Wait, what?” Lailu pulled the belt of the harness tighter until it dug into her waist.
“Better, better.” Carbon flicked the switch on her harness, the vibrations rattling Lailu’s teeth. “Here is where you control it,” Carbon said, tapping the small box that attached to the front of the belt.
Lailu looked down at the levers and clockwork gears dubiously, following the rope that led from them over to the large square contraption Carbon had bolted to the top of the cliff. He called it the auto-belayer, and it was supposed to lower her down and bring her back up easily, all without any effort on her part beyond the flip of a switch. Steam puffed out of it in small, irregular circles as it clicked and whirred. It did not look stable.
“You’re set,” Carbon said.
“Are you sure? I mean, you spent a lot more time checking Slipshod’s harness.”
Carbon’s face flushed, his whole head glowing a soft pink. “I am very sure. Very sure. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I don’t make mistakes. My inventions are sound. Very sound.” He added something else, something about “lies” and “misrepresentations,” the wind snatching his words and tossing them over the cliff, where Lailu could imagine them falling in long, angry streaks to puddle at the bottom.
It was only too easy to imagine herself falling with those words. . . .
Lailu gulped, but if she didn’t start trusting Carbon’s device, Slipshod would be facing the griffins alone, and griffins were not creatures you take lightly. Sure, they tasted great with a good dry rub and seasoning, but they really were monsters on the cliff who held nothing back, attacking with talons and claws and flying in all directions. Lailu only hoped she and Slipshod could get to one without attracting the attention of the rest of the flock.
Slowly, Lailu turned and leaned back in the harness, cringing at every little creak the leather gave. “Please hold, please hold,” she whispered. “O God of Cookery, please let it hold.”
“It will hold. Trust me,” Carbon said.
“Not really,” Lailu muttered, but there was nothing left to do but jump.
Lailu took a deep breath, then let it out. She was the youngest master chef in the land. She’d faced dragons and loan sharks and manipulative elves. She could handle a little jump. Without letting herself dwell on what would happen if the harness snapped, she pushed off from the cliff, leaping backward and out over the open air.
For one heart-stopping moment, she fell through the sky, the wind buffeting her from all directions, the side of the cliff racing by in a blur. Then the harness made a soft click-click noise and caught, gently slowing her descent until she hung next to Master Slipshod.
Lailu realized she’d been screaming and slapped both hands to her mouth, embarrassed. Such an amateur reaction. She glanced sideways at Master Slipshod to see his response, but if he noticed her slip-up, he gave no sign. She frowned. That wasn’t like him. When it came to hunting and cooking, he had all his spices lined up in a row, but lately he seemed . . . off. She’d noticed the bags under his eyes and the way his apron hung limply on his frame, not to mention how often he’d been distracted while they were preparing meals. Something was up.
She just hoped that whatever troubled Slipshod wouldn’t come back to bite her in the butt like last time.
“There’s a nice older male in the cave below us,” Master Slipshod said, shouting over the howling wind. “He’s preening his feathers. See?”
Lailu leaned back in her harness to study the cave below their feet, her heart doing somersaults at the thought of the fall beneath. A griffin crouched near the edge, cleaning his golden feathers with his beak, his tail swishing back and forth.
“So what’s the plan?” Lailu asked.
“I’ll go zooming down past his cave. When he sees me, he’ll come flying out. At that point, you drop onto his back and try to take out a wing.”
“So wait. . . . You want me to take out his wing while I’m sitting on his back?” Maybe she should have asked him about the plan before they strapped on their harnesses.
Slipshod nodded. “It will be the ride of your life.”
Lailu looked down at the glint of the river far below and swallowed.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be in your harness. Perfectly safe.”
“Oh, and don’t injure the wing too badly until he loses altitude.” Slipshod flicked the lever at the front of his harness, and before Lailu could argue, he was gone, zipping past the griffin, so close he could have reached out and touched the beast.
The griffin raised his massive head, feathers ruffling, tail standing straight out. Then he opened his beak and roared before leaping after Master Slipshod.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Lailu twisted the switch on her harness. She dropped immediately, so fast her eyes stung and her breath caught in her throat. And there he was—her griffin.
Lailu blinked her watery eyes, sure she hadn’t seen correctly. The griffin blurred and became two, then three, then a dozen griffins, all bursting out of their own cave openings and soaring down toward Master Slipshod’s unprotected head.
“O God of Cookery,” Lailu whispered, mentally taking stock of her weapons. She had a large chef’s knife at her hip and a pair of weighted steak knives tucked into each boot, but that was it. Since they would be hunting through the air, she’d purposely gone light. Would she be able to do enough to save her mentor? Or would the griffins just tear both of them to pieces?
Master Slipshod flicked the switch on his harness again and jerked to a sudden stop. The griffins and Lailu all hurtled past, leaving him safely above them. There was a brief pause while the griffins adjusted to this new development, changing direction and flying upward, and Lailu spotted her opportunity. She leaped, pushing off the cliff wall and hitting the button on her harness to give her slack. Her legs clamped around a griffin’s waist just under his wings, and her fingers tangled in the feathers at the back of his neck.
The griffin squawked, plummeting beneath the added weight, his wings pumping furiously. He bucked and twisted but couldn’t reach Lailu with his cruel beak. Slowly he managed to rise until the rest of his flock was just above, circling Master Slipshod.
“Ride of your life, yeah?” Master Slipshod shouted, looking way too cheerful for a man about to be ripped apart by the descending horde of beasts. Then he pressed a button on his harness.
Master Slipshod frowned, then pressed the button again.
“Blasted contraption—” was all Lailu had time to hear before her own griffin lost altitude and began falling, tired wings unable to keep them up any longer. Lailu clung to his feathers, dodging the halfhearted stabs of the creature’s beak. As the ground came into view below them, Lailu let go with one hand and pulled her chef’s knife out of her sheath, waiting. Almost time. She looked at the soft, unprotected niche where the wing met the body of the griffin. It would be easy to slice there. She laid the edge of the blade against it and felt the griffin tense, then buck, then twist again in the air, but he was too tired. As they fell farther, close enough now that Lailu could leap free and roll safely, the griffin managed to turn his huge head around, one beady eye on her.
Lailu stared into that eye and saw herself reflected, her black hair tangled around her head, face flushed, knife poised. She wavered, her knife barely resting against his wing. He made a sad little sound, and Lailu bit her lip, steeling her resolve. She was a master chef. This was what she did for a living. She had bested this beast fairly, and his life was hers.
She raised her knife, about to strike, then sighed and shoved it angrily into her sheath. She couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t. All those years, and this was the first time she’d ever lost her resolve when it came time to make the kill.
The griffin’s sad squawking turned into a roar of triumph, and with a sudden burst of energy, he flipped completely upside down. Distracted by her failure, Lailu slid immediately off the griffin and tumbled backward.
“You lousy, sneaky, feathered—”
Lailu hit the ground hard, all the air knocked out of her lungs. As she lay there, she swore she heard the griffin laughing at her. I hate birds, she thought furiously, watching the beast fly away. What would she tell Master Slipshod?
Master Slipshod . . . Lailu had forgotten about him. What if the rest of the griffins had already torn him to pieces? “Might serve him right.” She pushed herself up. Her whole body groaned in protest, but she managed to stagger back toward the cliff.
She pressed the button on her harness to pull her back up the cliff. It buzzed angrily and then went quiet, the harness barely twitching. Frowning, Lailu tried again. Nothing. “Yeah, he sure knew what he was doing,” she muttered. She found handholds in the rock and began to climb. She wasn’t sure she’d make it up there in time to be any help, but she knew she couldn’t just sit down there doing nothing while her mentor was fighting for his life. Even if his plan was stupid. Even if he’d brought this on himself.
Before she’d gone more than a few feet, there was a loud splash from the river behind her, and Lailu lost her grip and fell. Again.
Master Slipshod burst out from the river, coughing and spluttering. “Pigtails!” he choked.
She scrambled to the bank and caught the rope he tossed her, hauling him closer until he reached a calm little outlet where the water flowed sluggishly, barely rippling, and he could climb out on his own. He waded through it, disrupting the glassy surface, and collapsed on the stony shore.
Groaning, he raised his head. “That plan,” he said slowly, “was terrible.”
“You knew? Why didn’t you speak up sooner, then? You really need to take a bigger leadership role here. I’m not going to be around forever, and then who’s going to look out for Mystic Cooking?”
Lailu found this to be completely unfair. “You didn’t tell me the plan until we were in the middle of it! It’s not my fault. And I’d look out for our restaurant just fine on my own.”
“Oh yeah?” Master Slipshod’s eyes narrowed in his bruised face. He considered her, tilting his head to the side. “Perhaps,” he muttered. “Perhaps.” Then he climbed to his feet, pulled his chef’s hat out of a back pocket, and wrung it out. “Well, at least you got the one griffin. I’d hate to think this had been a complete waste of time.”
Lailu looked down at her feet and didn’t say anything.
“You did get the one griffin, right?”
Lailu coughed, her toe drawing patterns in the dirt.
Finally, reluctantly, she looked up at him. “It . . . sort of got away from me.”
Master Slipshod sighed, carefully placing his chef’s hat over his tangled hair. “Well, I guess there’s nothing for it.” He looked past Lailu, back at the cliff they’d been on. “Time for try number two.”
“W-what? We’re going after those things again?”
“Of course. A good chef never gives up a tasty meal. Plus I promised we’d thin out the flock for the city. There are too many of these things here and not enough food to sustain them all, so they’ve been harassing the nearby village.” Master Slipshod stretched, his back cracking audibly. “If we don’t take out a couple of them, they’ll send in one of those bloody heroes, and you know how they are. Stupid honor-seeking fools would probably wipe out the whole lot of these beasts, and then what would we do for future ingredients?”
“They’re not all stupid honor-seeking fools,” Lailu said, but softly, thinking of a certain blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. Vahn had been her childhood crush, and even though she was over him now, mostly, she still thought he made a great hero. She sighed and looked back at the cliff. “So what’s our next plan?”
Master Slipshod grinned. It wasn’t a very nice grin. Then he told her the plan. It wasn’t a very nice plan.
“It’s too bad the griffins didn’t get you” was all Lailu could think to say. And then she reluctantly turned and started to climb the cliff. Apparently, it was her turn to be bait.