Here’s a short story which crosses over the heroes of my Spacetime books with my friend R.A. Meenan’s Zyearth military sci-fi. Carda and Indal arrive on a distant world, which purportedly makes the best donuts in the multiverse. But before they can get one, they have to solve a little matter of theft and kidnapping. Contains humor.
“They make the multiverse’s best donuts on Rothdara,” Carda said. “Wait until you try one.”
The stocky redhead led the way down a street between tiny thatched cottages. The road was a mosaic of different-sized stones. Indal kept stopping to stare in disbelief at the intricate artistry underfoot. “You come here a lot?”
“I do lunch with Jonas sometimes. He introduced me to this pastry shop on the cliff.”
Indal pushed his black hair out of his eyes. He had the looks of a model, and a smile that could knock a girl winding at twenty paces. But today he wore a frown, and kept an eye on his friend.
A man and a woman strolled past, arm in arm. They had the olive skin of people from India, and wore brightly colored robes of a billowy fabric. They smiled and nodded to Carda and Indal.
“We’re eight words distant from Earth,” Indal said in a low voice. “I thought they stopped looking human after six.”
Carda grinned. “That’s what I thought, too. Watch.”
They reached the end of the street, and arrived at the edge of the cliffs. The town was built on an immense plateau that rose out of the lowlands like a block of stone on a table. More plateaus rose in the distance, and clouds drifted between them. The lowlands were rolling and green, with silver rivers snaking between the hills. The air was filled with birds–soaring, circling, drifting in flocks.
One bird flew toward them, becoming larger and clearer. It was black, with a raven’s beak and legs, but it was the size of a man. It extended its feet to land on the stone wall that rimmed the cliff’s edge. As it landed, the wings folded and became billowing robes. A young man stood there, his transformation so smooth that they nearly missed it. “Good day.” He stepped off the wall and walked away.
Indal whistled softly.
“Bird shifters,” Carda said. “Totally nice people.”
Indal smiled and backed away from the stone wall, wiping a drop of sweat from his face. “I doubt they’d welcome my wolf with open arms. Or wings.”
Carda beckoned. “The cafe’s this way.” As they walked on, he peered down the previous street, eyes narrowed.
Indal followed his gaze, but the street was empty. “What?”
“I thought I saw something.” They walked on, but Carda kept looking over his shoulder. Soon Indal was doing it, too.
They had nearly reached the end of the block when a figure darted out from behind a small tree and ducked into a doorway.
Indal’s heart lurched and began to pound. “It’s an animal. Like my wolf.”
Carda’s lip curled. “I came here to relax. This isn’t fair.” He heaved a long-suffering sigh, then opened one hand to display a tongue of green flame on his palm. He caught it in two fingers and twirled it into a spiral.
Indal shoved his hands in the pockets of his baggy jeans and tried to pretend that he wasn’t watching their mysterious shadow. At his back, between dimensions, his wolf body flexed its muscles and licked its teeth. It leaned against the silver bracelets on his wrists, which kept it from breaking into reality on its own.
The animal-person peered out of the doorway. Carda flicked his spell at it with the lazy concentration of a man swatting a fly. The spy yelped, staggered sideways and fell onto the road, its legs immobilized from the waist down.
Carda and Indal approached the creature. It snarled up at them, showing flat front teeth and sharp canines, similar to a human’s. It was covered in brown fur, but its head and neck were studded in hedgehog-like spikes. Its eyes were a startling sapphire blue, and flicked between the humans with obvious sentience.
“You were following us, blaw blaw,” Carda said, rotating a wrist. “Let me guess. You’re a hired assassin out to knife the Strider of Chronos.”
The creature shook its head.
“You’ve come to spy on my movements and plot an ambush.”
The creature shook its head, its snarl relaxing.
Carda glanced at the cloudless sky, as if seeking inspiration. “My bosses sent you to report on my off-duty performance.”
Again the creature shook its head.
Carda tilted his head to one side, studying the creature’s tight-fitting body armor, particularly the chest region. “You want to ask me out?”
“No!” the creature exclaimed, its voice obviously feminine. “My partner has been kidnapped, and you’re the first magic user I’ve seen. Release me!” She struggled and succeeded in falling on her face.
“I didn’t kidnap anybody,” Carda replied. “And I haven’t seen anybody here but locals. If I let you go, you’d better not attack me.”
The creature propped herself on her elbows and gave him a baleful stare. “All right. But give me a reason and I’ll split your skull.”
Carda snapped his fingers. The binding spell vanished, and the creature leaped to her feet.
“So!” Carda said, as she brushed herself off, “I’m Carda, Strider of Chronos. This is my friend Indal.”
Indal nodded. “S’up.”
“Izzy Guildspine,” said the creature. “Golden Guardian.” She indicated a golden medallion around her neck, shaped like a coiled dragon.
Indal cleared his throat. “Is Golden Guardian your species?”
Izzy snorted. “I’m a Quilar, from Zyearth. A Golden Guardian is an elite magic-wielding soldier, sworn to protect the innocent.”
Carda shrugged, as if he’d heard this sort of title before. Often.
“Come grab a donut with us. How do you know your partner’s been kidnapped?”
He set off up the road toward a market square that had shops on three sides and only cliff side on the fourth. Indal waited until Izzy trailed after Carda–he refused to turn his back on an irritated female alien in battle armor. She carried a lethal-looking battle hammer on one hip, and a mysterious leather pouch that might contain anything.
“I shouldn’t talk to you,” Izzy snapped. “For all I know, you have Matt tied up in one of these houses.”
Carda nodded. “So you’re looking for a guy called Matt. Same as you? Brown quinoa?”
“Quilar,” Izzy said through her teeth, her short ears angling backward. “He has white fur with blue spine tips.”
“What makes you think he’s here?” Carda shot Izzy a look. “I’ve never even heard of your world, but it sure ain’t Rothdara.”
“A thief stole Matt’s Gem, right out of our barracks.” Izzy surveyed the square, then faced them, one hand on her hammer’s handle. “Matt and I saw the thief’s portal. He went through first. When I jumped through, Matt was gone. The portal closed, and I’ve been stranded here ever since.”
“Dude, lame,” Carda responded. “What’s the thief look like?”
“He was hooded and cloaked. I never saw his face.”
“Typical.” Carda crossed the square to where several tables and benches were arranged outside a small shop. The shutters were closed, but a delicious smell of baking goods wafted through the cracks.
Carda sat at a table. “Not open yet. I can wait.”
Izzy stared at him. “Someone took Matt and his Gem, and you’re waiting for a bakery to open?”
Carda spread both hands. “Listen, lady, I’m off duty. You seem pretty capable. Go find your friend and his diamond, and I’ll kick back over here.”
Indal plucked at Izzy’s elbow. “Hey, come this way a bit.”
Izzy followed him across the square to where a gnarled tree grew out of a planter and shaded two benches. “What do you want, human? Are you as useless as your companion?”
Indal glared into the sarcastic sapphire eyes. “Carda’s been through serious crap lately. His work just rearranged the chain of command, and he’s exhausted. He’s so burned out, he can barely work magic. I came with him today to make sure he was okay. And you show up!”
“Not my problem,” Izzy replied, although she threw Carda a sympathetic glance. “Matt’s been gone for hours. I can’t raise him on our communicators, and I can’t detect his Gem. Why would someone here do that?”
“Beats me,” Indal replied, “seeing as most people here can only shapeshift. What’s so special about these Gems?”
Izzy opened the pouch at her hip and withdrew a cut stone the size of her fist. It was a golden topaz, and caught the sunlight in brilliant yellow glints. “This is a Gem,” she said. “On Zyearth, we use them to perform magic.”
Indal admired the Gem without touching it. “Nice. They’re like a magic wand, then?”
“More of a focus.” Izzy relaxed, and even smiled, as if handling a Gem had a calming effect on her. “They have huge innate energy, and combined with a Zyearthling’s life force, they give us amazing power. Like this one, it–”
One of the bird people landed nearby, a slim falcon with red and blue feathers. Its wing clipped the side of Izzy’s head. She staggered sideways. The bird stumbled, too, and they collided.
“Watch it!” Izzy yelped.
The bird whirled away. To Indal’s bemused eyes, the bird seemed half-transformed, neither human nor bird, but half of each–it had wings as well as arms. Its feet were still scaled and clawed. In one massive hop it gained the wall at the cliff’s edge, and hurled itself into space, the great wings springing open.
Izzy shrieked. “That bird stole my Gem!”
Izzy and Indal rushed to the wall, but the bird was already a hundred yards away and flying fast, without a backward glance.
Indal gathered time magic in both hands–purple lightning wreathed his fists–and flung it after the bird. The lightning crackled through the air and struck the thief, who froze, wings open. Indal pulled in the lightning as one might a rope. “You don’t escape a chronomancer that easily!”
The bird’s wings flapped in reverse, as Indal dragged it back through time. He hauled it down onto the pavement and held it there. “Get your Gem.”
Izzy pried at the clenched fist, but in a time stop, it was like trying to open the hand of a marble statue. “Take your spell off!”
“Well well.” Carda had abandoned his table and stood nearby, hands in his pockets. “Told you that you could catch the thief without me.”
“Sort of,” Indal gasped, sweat beading on his forehead. “He’s resisting–it’s harder and harder to hold him.”
Carda walked up and touched a finger to the bird’s forehead. A blob of green magic stuck there. “I can track that spell anywhere. Let him go.”
Indal released the lightning, which fizzled out.
The bird flailed its limbs and hit the ground with a clatter of talons. Izzy dove on top of it, and there was a confused moment of flying limbs and beating wings. Izzy took several buffeting blows to the head, and punched the bird in the beak. The bird shrieked, and bashed Izzy in the face with a wing butt. Izzy reeled backward.
The bird folded its wings and cast a terrified look at Carda and Indal. Then it simply disappeared, as if it had teleported.
“Hey!” Carda yelped. “No fair!”
Izzy scrambled to her feet, wiping blood from a split lip. “Burn it all! She’s a Zyearthling, and she got away with my Gem.”
Carda’s mouth twisted, as if he had bitten a lemon. “I think it’s time to enlist the local police.”
The police took the report seriously, and immediately sent out two hawk patrols to watch for the strange six-limbed bird.
Izzy seethed over the loss of her gem, the spines on her head standing erect like the fur of an angry cat. “You put a tracking spell on her, didn’t you? Track her!”
Carda didn’t take kindly to being ordered around–too much like his day job. “I will,” he said. “How do you know the thief is a girl?”
“The plumage,” Izzy replied, tossing her hammer from hand to hand, as if she wanted to brain Carda with it. “She’s a kestrel, and the colors are much brighter on the males.” She gave Carda a sideways look. “Avians lack mammary glands.”
“Right.” Carda tried to look as if he had known this all along. “You and Indal skirt the cliffs and watch for her to show up again. I’m going to check in town and see if my tracker spell picks up anything.”
“She’s a cloaker,” Izzy warned. “Her power is invisibility. Watch your back.”
Carda was glad to get away from her. Five minutes later he was alone on the streets between thatched buildings, muttering, “Watch your back, right. Stupid invisibility.” His stomach growled. He’d skipped breakfast in anticipation of donuts, and he still hadn’t gotten one. Now he was embroiled in this rotten little problem.
He summoned a tiny flicker of green magic, and tugged at the magic attached to the thief. The flame pointed to the left–further into town. Carda followed it, walking by houses adorned with flower boxes and beautifully groomed trees.
Although the scenery soothed his soul, it didn’t replace his magic. He was drained, weakened, after weeks of crazy amounts of spell casting. It was burnout in the literal sense. Even now, he could only manage to work tiny spells, and even that felt as if he was scraping around inside himself for scraps.
He turned a corner and swore under his breath.
Walking toward him up the street was another Quilar. This one was red, and dressed in baggy, casual clothes, unlike Izzy’s stark, professional body armor. He carried a compass the size of a dinner plate, which he watched as he walked. As Carda scrutinized him, he looked up and their eyes met.
“Hey,” said the Quilar. “You’re doing magic without a Gem.”
“Don’t need one,” Carda said. “Are you from Zyearth, too?”
“Yep.” The Quilar walked up and offered a hand. “The name’s Trecheon. Let me guess–you already met Izzy, and she accused you of taking Matt.”
Carda nodded. He liked this guy. “How’d you guess?”
Trecheon grinned. “The way you waited for me to bite your head off.”
Carda grinned, too. “We met the thief. Female bird–excuse me, avian–from your world. Izzy called her a cloaker, and she ripped off Izzy’s Gem.”
Trecheon said several words Carda had never heard, but noted to use later.
“Izzy’s Gem, too! What the hell! I only got here because our scientists forced the portal open with craploads of magic. They’re planning to send a whole platoon of troops through tomorrow morning.” Trecheon hefted the compass. “I got a lock on the thief’s Gem, but it keeps moving around.”
“Let me see.” Carda took the compass. It was heavy, and had three needles. All of them pointed more or less west–the same direction his spell had indicated.
Trecheon dug into a huge pants pocket, pulled out a paper-wrapped object, and revealed a donut–the pink glazed kind with cream cheese filling. He bit into it and closed his eyes in bliss. “Good eats on this world.”
Carda stared, eyes narrowed, and his stomach rumbled. “You got a donut. That is so totally not fair.”
“Go buy one,” said Trecheon. “If there’s any left. There was a line out the door when I dropped by.”
Carda’s stomach felt like an immense empty cavern as hope of donuts began to fade. He forced a smile. “Business before pleasure, right?”
Trecheon opened his mouth to reply, then looked over his shoulder. He whirled around and snatched at nothing. The air shimmered, and suddenly the red and blue thief appeared, her wings snapping open. Trecheon had grabbed her wrist, and clutched in her hand was a red Gem with a blue center.
“That’s her,” Carda said.
The thief snapped her beak, then beat her wings and clouted Trecheon with them. Unlike Izzy, Trecheon seemed familiar with brawling. He twisted the thief’s wrist, forcing her downward, then grabbed the base of one wing and wrenched it the wrong direction. The hollow bone snapped.
The thief screamed as her wing slumped forward. She staggered in a circle and dropped to her knees, sobbing and trying to hold up her wing with both hands.
“Brutal,” Carda remarked.
Trecheon retrieved his Gem and stuffed it back into a pocket. “Gotta do what you gotta do.” He stood in front of the bird. “You’ve taken one of my friends, and two Gems. I want them back, or I’ll break your other wing. Understand?”
The bird snapped her beak and didn’t answer. The sound set Carda’s teeth on edge–it sounded like two stones grinding together. He walked up to stand beside Trecheon, then knelt in front of the bird. It put his eyes on level with that deadly hooked beak, but he tried not to think about it. Instead, he focused on the thief’s deep brown eyes.
She cocked her head and studied him.
“Why are you stealing these Gems? Don’t you already have one?”
“I had to.” The whisper escaped, although the beak barely moved.
“Why did you have to?”
The bird looked away, her chest heaving with quick breaths. She scanned both ends of the street, then the blue sky, as if checking for pursuit. “He has my son. He said–he said that if I haven’t repaid my debt by sunset, he’ll eat him.”
“Whoa.” Carda rocked back on his heels. “Maybe you’d better start at the beginning.”
Haltingly, pausing often to gasp in pain, the avian told them her story.
Her name was Ellenora, and she was from Zyearth. Her mate had died, leaving her and their son destitute. She had drifted from job to job, growing more desperate as the months passed. Then her son, Aiden, had fallen ill.
“I needed a healer, but I had no money. Then I heard about a black market healer who accepted payment in magic. I found him, but his price was more magic than I could produce. He healed Aiden on credit, provided I pay him back. I’ve been paying–I promise I have!–but the last payment, he stripped my magic. My Gem–look at my Gem.” She reached into a cloth pouch that hung at her hip. From it she produced an ash-gray gem that barely reflected the light, as if heavily tarnished.
“I haven’t been able to work magic in days!” Ellenora’s voice rose toward a whistle. “He told me that I had to fetch him more Gems, and opened portals for me. He brought me here and sent me back and forth. I didn’t want to, and he took Aiden. He wanted three Gems, and I got two, but now my wing is broken–” Her slim body heaved with a sob. “Please, please help me! I’m sorry! I don’t know what to do!”
Carda and Trecheon exchanged glances. Despite Carda’s exhaustion-driven apathy he used as a shield, the shivering, weeping female stirred his protective instinct. He wanted to hug her, fix her wing, and kill this black market healer.
“You think she’s telling the truth?” he asked Trecheon.
Trecheon shrugged. “If not, she’s a damned good actress. Ellenora, who is this healer?”
“A griffin,” she panted, staring into their faces entreatingly. “A big one. He lives here, on Rothdara. Gray with orange markings. Aplomado.”
Carda had zero experience with Griffins, and by Trecheon’s face, neither did he.
“Tell you what,” Carda said, “come back to the market square. We have some friends who can heal your wing.”
Ellenora shook her head. “No! The Golden Guardian will kill me!”
“Not once I explain,” Carda said grimly. “Her job is to protect people like you. I just wish you hadn’t pissed her off.”
“I could have healed her if she hadn’t taken my Gem,” Izzy said acidly.
It was half an hour later. Ellenora crouched on a bench under the shade tree, her head jerking back and forth as she watched the flying flocks in the distance. Her wing was splinted and bound at her side. Indal, Carda, Izzy, and Trecheon stood at a distance, heads together as they compared notes.
“I could try a time rewind on her wing,” Indal said, stroking his chin. “The more time passes, though, the riskier it gets.”
“The police are looking for her stash,” Carda said. “I’m amazed she’s cooperating with us, honestly. If her stash is where she said it was, then we’ll know she’s telling the truth.”
“If her son’s life is at stake,” said Trecheon, “why wouldn’t she?”
Carda unwrapped a sandwich and gazed at it sadly. While it was a beautiful sandwich (cheese and sliced lamb on a buttery roll like a croissant), it wasn’t a donut. He bit into it–no point in going hungry when there was a big, bad griffin out there.
Izzy folded her arms and watched their prisoner. “I just want my Gem back. I can feel it starting to fade.”
Trecheon slapped her on the back. “Nice to see that you’re not worried about Matt.”
She shot him a glare, her brown quills bristling. “Jump off a cliff, Trech.”
A moment later, as Carda finished the last of his lunch, four police-birds beat their way to the top of the cliffs. Two carried a blue and white Quilar by the arms, and the other two carried a couple of burlap sacks. Ellenora shrank together as she saw them, and shut her eyes.
The new Quilar dropped to the pavement, landed on all fours, and sat there for a second, peering around the square. He stared at Ellenora for a second, then rose to his feet.
Izzy ran to him and threw her arms around him. “Matt! I’m so glad you’re safe!”
Carda watched as they embraced, and elbowed Indal. “Bets on percentage of itemhood.”
Indal thumbed his lower lip. “Forty percent. Hug was too short.”
Trecheon cocked an ear in their direction, then tilted one hand back and forth. “You’re more or less right.”
Matt and Izzy retrieved their Gems from the sacks, and approached, flanked by the Rothdaran police. Their bird bodies had become sober-looking men in dark blue robes, each with a gold stripe embroidered across the chest.
“Thanks for the rescue,” Matt said, shaking hands with the humans and Zyearthlings. “She’d stuck me in a cave halfway down the cliff. I’ve been there for days!”
“Can you confirm the reports of a griffin?” one of the policemen said.
Matt nodded and shuddered, folding his arms as if touched by a chill wind. “Nasty piece of work. Big as an elephant, threatened to eat me if I tried to escape. He took the kid, Aiden, this morning.”
“Was the boy alive?” the policeman asked.
“Yeah, but I think the griffin means to eat him whether she gets the other Gems or not.”
The policemen muttered to each other, looking as if Matt had just announced the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.
“It’s a flying cat-bird,” Carda said. “Get a couple of shotguns and blast him. What’s the problem?”
“Griffins are magical creatures,” one of the policemen explained. “They shield against physical attacks, and can only be harmed with magic. We have magical weapons, but the presence of a hostage complicates things.”
“Oh.” Carda glanced at Indal. “Looks like we’ll have to save the day, as usual.”
“Not alone,” said Izzy. Her usual sour expression had been replaced by a smile. “Matt has wind powers, and Trecheon throws fire. Between us, we can take down one griffin.”
“I hope you’re right,” Carda muttered.
The sun crept toward the horizon, tinting the clouds gold, then orange. Carda and Indal sat at a table apart from the Zyearthlings. The Quilar had taken the avian into their group, and they talked softly, heads together.
“But that won’t work,” Trecheon’s voice reached them. “We’d have to lure it into the square, and it’s too smart for that.”
Carda poked at his plate. He and Indal had grabbed an early dinner of pastry-wrapped vegetables and meat, but all hunger had abandoned him. “You do realize,” he said in an undertone, “we’re probably going to get to watch this griffin eat a bird-kid right in front of us.”
Indal had eaten half of one pastry and pushed the rest aside. “The thought had occurred to me.”
“What do we do?”
“Depends on how much magic you’ve built up.”
Carda looked inside himself. His magic still felt feeble, as if recovering from a long illness. “Probably not enough. I mean, I’m good for a couple of teleports, but that’s it.”
Indal touched one of his silver bracelets and raised an eyebrow.
Carda sighed. “The wolf could probably take it on … but what if this griffin throws you off the cliff?”
Indal frowned and dug one hand into his black hair. “Gag. I hate it when you’re right.”
“We can freeze it in time, bind it with space, teleport it into a trap.” Carda counted on his fingers. “Fry it with Zyearth magic, attack it with your wolf. None of those will necessarily save a hostage if the griffin decides to kill him.”
“If the hostage was human, I’d vote for the wolf,” Indal said. “I don’t like the way humans smell. But an avian? I’m afraid he’d smell like chicken.”
Carda groaned and rested his head in his hands. “What am I even doing here, Indal? I’m not helping. My magic is spent. I’m spent.”
Indal said nothing, and poked at his dinner with the tip of a knife.
“All I wanted was a donut,” Carda went on. “Now life and death is happening, and I barely have enough magic to build a tracking spell.” He spread his arms. “I’m the Strider of freaking Chronos, Indal, and I can’t help anybody. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever helped anybody. These Zyearth people are more capable than I am.”
Indal gazed at him. “You want the truth?”
“Probably not.” Carda grinned with half his face. “Hit me.”
Indal leaned forward. “Do you know what will happen if a Rothdaran griffin eats a kid from Zyearth?”
Carda closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
“It means those two worlds go to war. You can’t afford to not help.” Indal’s gaze focused on something behind Carda. “Speak of the devil.”
Carda leaped from his bench and spun around in the same movement.
An immense creature was soaring through the sunset toward them. The flocks of bird-people scattered before it with shrieks of panic, emptying the sky. It was the size of an airplane, and the wings beat with long, slow strokes, lazy and self-assured. As it drew closer, it’s markings became visible–its back was gray, its underbelly orange, like a fluorescent peregrine falcon. Its forepaws clutched a small figure against its chest.
Ellenora leaped to her feet with a cry. “He’s brought Aiden!”
Carda glanced at Izzy, Matt, and Trecheon, who all had produced their Gems. “We have a plan, right?”
“Nothing solid,” Trecheon replied.
“Hit him with everything,” Matt said at the same time.
Ellenora grabbed Matt’s arm, her beak open and wings trembling. “Don’t hurt Aiden, please!”
Izzy had drawn her battle hammer alongside her Gem, and scrutinized the griffin as it drew closer. “You think it will negotiate?”
A light ignited in Carda’s brain. “Ellenora! Why does he want you to bring him magic?”
She looked at him without answering, her eyes glazed with terror.
Indal gave Carda a questioning look.
As the griffin drew closer, Carda said, “Why didn’t I think of it before? Look at us! We’re totally able to negotiate! Guys, hold your fire, I–”
Trecheon built a fireball between his hands, inflating it like a balloon. He threw it into the air, then Matt swept his arms at it. A gust of wind roared outward, carrying the fire at the griffin’s face.
The beast lifted one scaled forepaw and extended its fingers. The fireball shrank to a spark and vanished into its palm. “A welcoming committee,” it said, hovering just beyond the edge of the cliff. Its voice was male, and rose and fell in a musical cadence. Carda was struck by the sudden thought that this griffin could sing.
Matt and Trecheon hurled more fire, and again the griffin absorbed it.
“Really, Ellenora,” he said to the cowering avian, “I expected your rescuers to be stronger than this.” His iron-gray beak cracked in a smile. “Aren’t these Golden Guardians? Come on, boys. Hit me harder.”
His other forepaw clutched the bird-child, Aiden. He was gray and blue, for he’d not yet grown his adult plumage, and his feathers were badly rumpled where the griffin had held him. “Mother!” he cried. “Mother! Help me!”
Ellenora tried to spread her wings by instinct, struck the splint, and curled up in pain. “Free him, Aplomado!”
“Your debt remains,” the griffin replied. “I told you that I would take your son’s life if the debt went unpaid.”
“Hey!” Carda ran across the market square and placed himself between Aplomado and the Zyearthlings. “Everybody cool it! Aplomado, come on and land. I need to talk to you.”
The griffin fixed one savage yellow eye on him. “And who are you? A beast hunter with concealed blades?”
“I’m the Strider of Chronos,” Carda replied. He pulled out his car keys and displayed the silver medallion of office, with its hourglass inside the rings of a gyroscope. “I’m here to negotiate, not fight.”
“I’m comfortable up here,” Aplomado said. “Negotiate all you like.”
Carda folded his arms. “What do you want?”
“Want?” The griffin’s free hand stroked Aiden’s head, the talons as long as the fledgeling’s legs. “I don’t want anything, human. However, I need magic.”
“You need magic?” Carda jerked a thumb at Matt and Trecheon. “Is that why you wanted their Gems?”
“Yes.” Aplomado surveyed them all with jerks of his head. “Mating season approaches, and male Griffins decorate our eyries with magic to attract females. I have worked hard to collect enough magic, but it is difficult to come by. Ellenora had a pathetic amount of magic at her disposal. Her child means nothing to me–I would gladly exchange him for magic. A lot of magic.” He swept his eagle claws at them. “A sample of all your magic would do.”
Carda drew a deep breath. Hopefully he had enough. “What do you guys think?”
“How do you take our magic?” Izzy said cautiously.
“A griffin sphere,” said Aplomado. “I conjure it, you fill it with your magic. Completely painless.”
The Zyearthlings exchanged looks.
“We can’t fight him,” Trecheon said.
Matt nodded. “I know. All right, Aplomado, we accept.”
The griffin surged forward and landed with a clatter of claws. He towered over Carda, and even with wings folded, he was simply immense. His hindquarters were those of a tiger, the same tawny orange as his feathers. He released the bird-child, who stumbled, then ran to his mother. She wrapped her arms around him, and they disappeared as she activated her invisibility powers.
Aplomado raised one forepaw and cupped it in midair. A sparkle of green magic appeared, and swelled into a clear, delicate-looking bubble the size of a beach ball. He released it, and it drifted to the ground. “You first, mighty Strider of Chronos.”
Carda drew a deep breath, gathering up the puny shreds of his exhausted magic. He called fire and lightning to both hands, and gently pressed them against the bubble. At once the green fire and purple lightning blazed into the bubble, swirling and dancing like the surface of Jupiter. It left Carda empty and powerless, and he felt as if he’s had the wind knocked out of him. Breathless, he nodded at Indal.
Indal stepped up and fired more purple time lightning into the sphere. Now the sphere held a haze of green, with curtains of lightning shimmering through it.
“Nice,” Aplomado said, watching it. “Next.”
Trecheon walked up and dropped a fireball into the bubble. The orange and green fire chased each other in circles instead of combining.
Matt added a gust of wind that blew perpetually inside the bubble, fanning the fire, and creating tiny hurricanes across the inside of the bubble’s surface.
Aplomado beckoned to Izzy. “Your turn.”
She lifted her Gem in a hopeless gesture. “I’m a healer.”
He glared. “It’s magic, isn’t it? Add it.”
Izzy approached the bubble, biting her lip. Her Gem glowed gold, and she touched the sphere’s surface.
The magic’s movement changed. Its center slowed to a crawl, while the outside continued to race around the equator. Golden sparks shot through the green, purple, and orange.
“Excellent,” murmured Aplomado. He paced around the sphere, examining it from every angle, the tip of his tail twitching.
Carda waited, tense. His magic was depleted, and none of them could beat the griffin in a fight.
Fortunately, Aplomado was pleased with their offering. He lifted the bubble in both forepaws. “This is an enormous amount of magic. Ellenora’s debt is paid.”
“Good luck finding a mate, sir,” Indal said.
“With this much magic, it’s practically guaranteed.” Aplomado carried the sphere to the edge of the cliff, and launched himself out into space, his huge gray wings snapping open.
Carda tottered to a table and collapsed onto a bench. He felt as if he’d just completed a triathlon he hadn’t expected to run. Hunger gnawed at his insides. He scooped up his neglected dinner and devoured it.
A plate slid across the table in front of him. It held a noble chocolate cake donut, with chocolate glaze. Carda looked up in surprise, and met Izzy’s gaze.
She smiled apologetically. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Carda bit into the donut, closing his eyes in bliss. “This. This is what I needed.”
His magic flared to life inside him, flooding him with more energy with every bite.
Indal sat down with a donut of his own, this one filled with diced fruit and spices. He took one bite and made a face. “I know why you wanted one of these. They’re stuffed full of mana!”
“What, you think I have a sugar addiction?” Carda said. “I told you they make the best donuts in the multiverse. I don’t think they even realize what mana does–they use it to make the dough fluffy.”
Matt and Trecheon raced to grab donuts, too. Izzy followed them. “Order a box. We’re taking these home.”
Something brushed Carda’s shoulder. He glanced up to see Ellenora standing there, with Aiden holding her hand. Her good wing was half-open, sheltering him. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Carda said with a grin. “You ever get in a magical scrape, call me. This is what I do.”
She nodded, her dark eyes full of gratitude that words could not convey.
Carda tossed her a coin. “Buy the kid a donut.”
She caught it with a smile. “Good idea.”
The books that these characters are from: (Amazon affiliate links)