Updated the video of the reading, heh. Whether you listen to it, read it, or both, I hope you enjoy the first part of this story about a hunter of beasties in the big city and the trouble he believes he’s gotten into.
For a shadow-thin creature made entirely of darkness and doubt, the Sneak Feeder had had a surprisingly heavy head. The fact that its head now was separated from its body did nothing to make it feel lighter, either. Nevertheless, Morry managed to set it down gently on the alley’s pavement. One could never be too careful with doubt in particular. It was a bit like puddle water: get too close, and inevitably you ended up drenched with it. Morry stood back, clasped his gloved hands in front of his belly, and tipped his head in acknowledgment of his client.
The gryphon stood tall on its haunches, distancing itself as gryphons tended to do when faced with things they found displeasing, which explained why they rarely were seen below the peaks of the city’s skyscrapers. From that vantage point several feet above Morry, the gryphon glanced down its beak at the severed head and sniffed. “It really is awful,” it said. “It’s even worse than I imagined.”
“Oh, yes. Well,” said Morry. “I can’t say I’ve seen too many heads that look better without a body to balance them.”
“Really. And how long have you been in your line of work? Ugh, I can’t even eat it.”
“Begging your pardon, but I’d thought that gryphons could eat anything.”
“It’s more in the way that some of your kind suggest that they can’t eat overcooked asparagus. As the younger ones say, I just can’t even.”
Morry nodded. His knowledge of popular speech was slim, and if a twelve-foot gryphon said it was so, who was he to argue?
“To think of all that doubt slipping beneath my hide and slithering its way into my soul,” the gryphon said. Its wings shook like sails in a terrible storm.
Morry reached his right hand toward his left elbow, just far enough to let the sleeve of his overcoat pull back from his glove and reveal the tip of his blade. A blade made of pure moonlight was a dangerous thing, and Morry tried to avoid looking directly if he could, but darned if he didn’t enjoy the way it shone off the rain-kissed bricks of the city at times—or off the pearlescent feathers of a gryphon’s head.
“The Sneak Feeder won’t be trouble for you anymore,” Morry said. “I promise and guarantee.”
“A gift,” said the gryphon. “You deserve a gift.”
“Oh, really, but that’s quite fine. You already paid promptly, and in today’s economy—”
“No,” the gryphon said in a voice that compelled the city’s foundation and infrastructure to agree with it. “A gift you deserve, and a gift you will receive.”
Again, Morry tipped his head. As old as they were, gryphons sometimes had difficulty navigating the subtle undercurrents that moved the river of human social convention. A gryphon’s offer of a gift was a little like a child’s offer to bake cake: the result was just as likely to bring a sting of tears to your eyes or an unusual curdle to your stomach as it was to bring a smile to your lips.
“Thank you kindly,” Morry said as he raised his head to look at the gryphon.
There was, Morry knew, a shade of black that suggested emptiness, and then there was a shade of black that suggested the presence of everything, good and evil, that humans were not meant to fully comprehend. Morry had never understood how a gryphon’s eyes could shift so easily between the two. He had been trained, but even he felt his shoulders tighten under the gryphon’s stare, until suddenly its eyes flashed gold and its head snapped upward, its face—even with the beak—somehow pulled into a grin.
“You’re a good man, although plain and slightly round of belly for one in your profession,” said the gryphon. “Your gift shall simply be that which your heart has desired most.”
Then the gryphon raised its magnificent wings and leaped into the air. Where it had been standing, a sphere of golden light the size of Morry’s head fizz-popped into existence. The sphere turned on an invisible axis three times before sailing out of the alley and into the city proper, looking for all intents and purposes like a steroid-filled willowisp on a mission (which Morry had had to deal with once, so he understood the possible danger).
“Think, think, think,” Morry muttered to himself. What did his heart want most, besides a shower and a mug of cocoa, and maybe one of those rocks from the Estonian shoreline that he could use to scrub the last of the Sneak Feeder’s tendrils out from between his toes? If only Carol lived nearby, he could ask her and—
“Oh, no,” said Morry.
Despite what many believed when they first saw him, he was a fast runner. He would need all the speed his pasty legs could muster now if he was to stand any chance of beating a mysterious ball of gryphon-born light to the fifth-floor apartment of Carol the Blade.