But end it did with a flurry and a bustle and a burst of fallen autumn leaves. Onto the forest path tumbled a Girl of twelve, and her eyes were black and her curly hair was black, and her skin was the color of rich tea with just a little milk. Her clothes were ragged and colorful, and some bits of her clothing had fringe and other parts had beads, and she had leaves tangled in her hair. Girl nearly fell when she spilled onto the forest path from a ridge above, and then she looked around, glowered at Gryphon and Tiger, and raised to them a heavy sword that was much too big for her.
“Do you work for Wizard?” Girl said.
“Well, um,” said Tiger; but he was interrupted by Gryphon, who said, “No, we don’t,” because Gryphon knew right away that something was wrong.
“Good,” Girl said, “because I just escaped from Wizard, and I have to leave Town.”
“Escaped from Wizard?” Tiger said. “But everyone loves him!”
“Ha!” cried Girl. “You haven’t seen his secret dungeon under his Magic Tree where he keeps children locked in cages so he can turn us into beasts.”
This news made Tiger very unhappy, and he tugged on his tail a couple of times and stood closer to Gryphon.
“But where,” Tiger said to Girl, “are your parents?”
“Dad tried to save me,” Girl said, “but Wizard turned him into a manticore, and Dad had to go hide because he had become all big and scary.” Girl turned her head aside and shed one tear, which was enough for her. Then she said, “Mom lives in Town, but if I go back to her, Wizard will turn her into a troll.”
Gryphon said, “What does Wizard want to do to you?”
Girl cried, “He wants to turn me into a unicorn!”
Tiger tried to smile. “Unicorns are nice.”
“Yes,” Girl said, “they’re nice and pink and flowery and pretty, and I don’t wanna be one!” She waved her sword at Gryphon and Tiger to show how serious she was.
“How does Wizard change people?” Gryphon said.
“I dunno,” Girl said. “All I know is, it takes a lot of gold.”
Tiger cried a little bit then, for it was he who had asked Gryphon to help on the quest Wizard had given Tiger, to kill the dragon and take his gold. Tiger said to Girl, “We didn’t know.”
Gryphon comforted Tiger, and told Girl the truth. “Are there more children in Wizard’s dungeon?”
“Ye-e-e-eah,” said Girl, who was now suspicious of Gryphon and Tiger. “Lots.”
“Then,” Tiger said, “we must go rescue them.”
Gryphon and Tiger hid their bag of gold in the woods, since now they would never give it to Wizard. Then they walked with Girl out of the woods and into Town, toward Wizard’s Magic Tree. Along the way they stopped and bought a green scarf from a street vendor; and Tiger, who liked to make things, fashioned the scarf into a sling for Girl’s sword so her arms wouldn’t get so tired carrying the heavy weapon. Girl loved Tiger for that, but she was still suspicious of big and powerful Gryphon. Gryphon had black eyes, and Girl knew that creatures with black eyes, like her, had smart and busy brains. But while they all walked down the street past carriages and jugglers and traveling eggcup salesmen, a retinue of the King’s Knights rounded a corner and came toward our adventurers. The King’s Knights were proud and noble, but they were a little dim, and they might not have believed raggedy Girl’s tale of the evil Wizard and his dungeon, because Wizard might have sent the Knights to look for her. So while the Knights demanded that a hapless eggcup salesman show them his eggcup-selling license, Gryphon used his huge wings to shield Girl from the Knights’ view. Then Gryphon, Girl, and Tiger ducked behind a passing trolley and ran away. After that, Girl loved Gryphon, too.
Wizard’s Magic Tree was in the center of Town Park, down in a little valley shaped like a soup bowl. Few people ventured close to the Magic Tree since the valley rim was patrolled by little brown wriggly creatures that looked like moles but had teeth like sharks. But because Tiger had been there before, the mole-sharks let Tiger and Gryphon pass. Girl hid on Gryphon’s back underneath his folded wings so she wouldn’t be spotted.
Tiger shivered after they passed the mole-sharks. “Those little creatures are so ugly,” he said. “Why did we never realize that Wizard is evil?”
“The powerful ones have special magic,” Gryphon said, “and can fool people into thinking they’re good.”
Tiger thought Gryphon was very wise, and that made him feel a little warmer inside.
Magic Tree was one of those places that look small from the outside, but are really as big as palaces when you go through the door. When Gryphon and Tiger entered with hidden Girl, Wizard waited for them in his blue and silver Wizard robes and his blue and silver Wizard hat, while standing at his blue and gold cloth-covered magic-making table.
Wizard stroked his very long and silver Wizard beard. “Where,” he said with a sniff, “is my gold?”
Girl jumped up from under Gryphon’s wings, and stood as tall as she could atop Gryphon’s broad back. She thrust her sword out toward Wizard as if it weighed nothing at all.
“The only gold you’ll feel, evil Wizard,” Girl said, “will be the gold on the hilt of my sword!”
Gryphon’s long ears twitched, and any doubts he had were dispelled.
“I can hear children crying in your dungeon,” Gryphon said, “you evil, evil man.”
And so they fought, and there was much shouting and tussling and flashing of magic fireballs. The mole-sharks ran in to help Wizard with their greedy, dripping fangs, but Tiger took care of them one at a time by popping the monsters with his sharp tiger-teeth, and the wriggly little creatures’ bodies burst like bloody little balloons. Gryphon flew about the high-ceilinged chamber and batted back Wizard’s magic fireballs with his wings, and slashed at Wizard with his beak and claws. But it was Girl who was bravest of all. She sneaked under gryphon’s mighty, flapping wings, ran up to the distracted Wizard, and plunged her sword deep into his body. Girl never broke a promise, and indeed the only gold that Wizard felt that day was the cold hilt of Girl’s sword on his belly before he died.
A trio of very dim Knights waited outside the Magic Tree to arrest those who had attacked wise and good Wizard. But Gryphon held the Knights back while Tiger and Girl brought the newly-freed children up from Wizard’s dark dungeon.
Tiger never frowned, but right then he was very angry, and he ordered the Knights, “Take these children back to their proper homes!”
The Knights obeyed, though first they had to free the eggcup salesman whom they had arrested for not having the proper eggcup-selling papers.
Gryphon looked at Tiger, gave his new friend a sad smile, and said, “Your fine clothes are all bloody and dirty.”
Tiger smiled, and nuzzled Gryphon’s beak with his muzzle. “That’s okay,” Tiger said, “because I’m with you.”
Girl giggled at them because to her, there was nothing sillier than being in love.
Gryphon, Tiger, and Girl went back for their bag of gold, and divided the coins three ways. Then Gryphon and Tiger took Girl home, and there was much happiness even before Girl’s Dad showed up. He was no longer a manticore, for Wizard’s evil spell had worn off when Wizard died. Dad hugged his Girl, saw her gold, and being a very practical sort of Dad, he reached at once for the newspaper to find his family a nice, new home.
Gryphon and Tiger hugged, and said good-night, and each went to their own homes. Gryphon and Tiger both got in trouble, for despite bringing home gold and slaying Gold Dragon and vanquishing Wizard and freeing the children, the new friends had missed a day of school without permission, and the Dean of Polytechnic Academy was very upset. Mr. and Mrs. Tiger were understanding, and only sent Tiger to bed early and without dessert. But Mr. and Mrs. Gryphon were fiercely angry, which is simply normal for gryphons, and they made poor Gryphon take out the trash every night for a week; for, you see, taking out the trash is the thing gryphons hate to do most.