The Gryphon’s Lair – Kelley Armstrong

I have a way with monsters. Unfortunately, this chickcharney seems immune to it. When I was three, my dad captured a chickcharney and brought it home for me. I tried to hug it. You can’t blame me. Chickcharnies look like owls on stilts with amazing monkey tails. Adorable. Anyway, the chickcharney, shockingly, did not want to be hugged, even by a princess. For a flightless bird, it tried very hard to take flight. Finally, Dad whisked it away and promised me a more huggable version. I still have the toy, which has had both eyes and a leg replaced due to over-cuddling. Now, nine years later, I’m trying to capture a live chickcharney, and I swear it knows how much abuse its stuffed twin endured. It is not falling for any of my tricks, despite the fact that I am offering mealworm-and-hazelnut suet, which chickcharnies love the way I love honey cakes. I’m crouched behind a rock, watching the chickcharney bob around, totally ignoring the suet. Finally it stops, as if catching the scent.

When the chickcharney turns toward me, my inner toddler squeals. It is truly the most adorable of the bird monsters, all huge eyes and fluffy feathers and those ridiculous legs. Its fuzzy body bobs as it walks to the first nugget of suet. To reach it, the chickcharney has to bend almost in half, like a human touching their toes. It swings down, grabs the nugget and levers up. As it chomps the treat, it squeaks in delight. Then it spots the next piece. When the beast heads my way, I suppress a shiver of glee. I’ve chosen my spot perfectly. I am the royal monster hunter, after all.

Well, royal monster hunter in training, but I do carry the ebony sword. As Clan Dacre, I’d been raised to be a monster hunter. Yet my training doubled when I took the sword, and today I can see how it’s paid off. Chickcharnies are nervous beasts, but this one is heading straight for me, not suspecting a thing. I’m downwind and hidden behind long grass, wearing a tunic and leggings that blend with the green fronds. The chickcharney keeps bobbing toward me. When it hears a sound, its head swivels all the way around to look behind it. I tense, certain it’s about to bolt. But it only peeps twice and then continues toward my hiding place as it scoops up the suet-chunk trail. It’s five feet away.

Four. Three… Dry twigs crackle and paws thump the hard earth as something plows through the grass. A flash of brown fur. Then jagged teeth flash as the intruder squeals in rage…and charges the chickcharney. “Jacko, no!” The young jackalope pretends not to hear me. He’s running at the chickcharney, I’m running at him, and the chickcharney is running as fast as its wobbly stilt-legs will carry it. It’s not fast enough, though, and Jacko leaps with a squeal of victory that turns to a grunt of surprise as I dive and grab him. I land flat on my face, outstretched hands clutching Jacko’s furry body. Once caught, he only gives a chirp of confusion. Then he sees me facedown in the dirt, and his chirp turns to an alert cry as he wriggles free and nudges me with his antlers.

I groan and lift my head. The chickcharney is long gone. There’s just my half-grown jackalope companion, chattering at me. With long, powerful hind legs and a slender body, Jacko looks like a hare…if a hare had striped fur, pointed teeth and tiny antlers. Jackalopes are predators and a full-grown one could take down a chickcharney. At half size, though, Jacko is just dangerous enough to spook the poor beast. “I was not being attacked by a chickcharney, Jacko,” I say. His chirrup says he’s not so certain. In fact, he’s quite sure he’s just rescued me from a terrible death at the talons of a deformed owl, and he nudges my hand, looking for the petting he so richly deserves. I give him a pat.

He did think he was protecting me, and despite our training, he’s still too young to grasp the difference between threats and targets. Which is why someone was supposed to be watching him. When a giant black wolf charges from the brush, I don’t pull my sword. I don’t even scramble to my feet. I just skewer the warg with a glare. “Hello, Malric. Great job taking care of Jacko.” People say that Clan Dacre can understand the speech of monsters. Not exactly. We just learn to interpret their body language.

Yet the more time I spend with beasts, the more I suspect they understand a greater portion of our speech than we realize. Malric’s snort insists that caring for a jackalope is beneath his dignity, but I don’t miss the sheepish look in his eyes. He stalks over and grabs Jacko by the scruff of his neck. Jacko hangs there, limp, even when Malric gives him a shake and a growl. A shadow passes over us. I squint up as a white cloud floats down to land on four roanred hooves. The pegasus filly looks at Malric and Jacko and then tosses her red mane with a whinny of annoyance. “No, you didn’t miss the party invitation, Sunniva,” I say. “Thank you for staying away while I hunted. Unfortunately, your fellow beasts weren’t as patient.

So much for catching a chickcharney.” Leaving my beasts at the castle hadn’t been an option. Jacko needs a steel cage to keep him from coming after me, and even then, he’s been known to squeeze through the bars. I refuse to corral or bridle Sunniva—staying with me must always be her choice. As for Malric, well, this isn’t exactly an authorized hunt. Mom thinks my brother and I are off enjoying a picnic, which means we need my personal bodyguard, and that’s the warg. I push to my feet and look around. “I’m sure Rhydd won’t catch one either, so—” Malric woofs. It’s a deep chuff, and I follow his gaze to see the chickcharney perched on a rock fifty feet away, watching us. Maybe I haven’t lost my chance after all.

“Malric—” I begin. Before I can finish asking, he pins Jacko under one massive paw. The jackalope grumbles but lies still. I thank Malric with a nod. Then I pull an apple from my pocket and give it to Sunniva, while politely asking her to stay here. Her whinny agrees. Beasts under control, I leave the chickcharney watching them with interest while I creep through the long grass. On all fours, I make my way toward the monster, ease behind it and toss a suet pellet over its head. It peeps and gives a start. Then it smells the treat.

As it gobbles up that one, I toss another into the space between us. The chickcharney trots over and— Hooves pound the earth, the very ground vibrating beneath them. A massive black horse leaps out from the forest. A steed with an iridescent horn. The unicorn charges, a rider clinging to his back. Rhydd grins and lifts his net as his unicorn, Courtois, bears down on the chickcharney. My chickcharney.

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