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The Griffin's Riddle

Suzanne Selfors

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  Table of Contents

  A Sneak Peek of The Fairy Swarm

  Copyright Page

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  For griffins everywhere


  Ben Silverstein’s bottom had gone numb.

  He’d been sitting in a cold metal chair for two hours, playing checkers. In Ben’s opinion, checkers was one of the most boring games ever invented, right up there with Go Fish and dominos. No laser cannons, no high-speed chases, no flashing lights or sirens. Just a wooden board, a pile of red buttons, and a pile of black buttons. It was like playing a game from the caveman days.

  And to make matters worse, Ben’s opponent was Mrs. Froot, the oldest person in Buttonville. Her hair was so white it looked as if snow had fallen on her head. Her hearing aids were so squeaky it sounded as if two mice were living in her ears. And her eyeglass lenses were so thick that if a sunbeam shot through them, the whole senior center would catch fire. Ben secretly wished that would happen because it would give him an excuse to stop playing.

  It was Tuesday, which was board game day at the Buttonville Senior Center. Ben didn’t have anything else to do, so he’d agreed to spend the morning with his grandfather and the rest of the seniors. The air was stuffy with perfumes and medicated ointments.

  “You’re a good boy,” his grandfather Abe Silverstein said from the next table, where he was playing Battleship with Mr. Filbert. “Isn’t my grandson a good boy to play eleven games of checkers with Mrs. Froot?”

  “King me!” Mrs. Froot commanded, strands of hair slipping from her bun.

  “Yeah, okay,” Ben grumbled, placing a red button on top of another red button. As it turned out, Mrs. Froot was a bit of a ninja when it came to checkers. She had three kings on the board while Ben had zero.

  Grandpa Abe leaned sideways and nudged Ben with his elbow. “How come you look so sad?”

  “He’s a sore loser,” Mr. Filbert said. A military veteran, he’d come prepared for Battleship, dressed in his army jacket and medals. “No one likes to lose. If I don’t take my pills, I lose my memory.”

  “I’m not sad about losing,” Ben said, which was the truth. In the grand scheme of things, losing eleven games of checkers wasn’t important. But some of the other things that had happened that summer were definitely important.

  Like becoming an apprentice at Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital.

  Thankfully, Dr. Woo didn’t really take care of worms. Behind the walls of the old Buttonville Button Factory, Dr. Woo took care of Imaginary creatures. Only one week into his apprenticeship, Ben had already met a wyvern hatchling, a black dragon, a rain dragon, a leprechaun, a lake monster, a kelpie, two unicorns, and a sasquatch. And even though yesterday’s apprenticeship hadn’t introduced any new creatures, just an entire day spent plucking slugs from the sasquatch’s fur, it had still been way better than sitting around playing old-fashioned board games.

  But despite the great adventures in the Imaginary World, Ben couldn’t forget the reason why his parents had sent him to stay with his grandfather in Buttonville. They needed time alone to discuss some “troubles.” And that very morning, before heading to the senior center, Ben had received some bad news.

  When Ben returned to Los Angeles at the end of the summer, his dad would be living in a different house. And that was the real reason why Ben felt sad.

  “Oy vey!” Grandpa Abe exclaimed. “You sank my battleship!”

  Four games later, Mrs. Froot dozed off in her chair. The checkers marathon was finally over.

  “I’m pooped,” Grandpa Abe said. “I need a nap, too.” He put on his canvas hat and grabbed his cane. Then he waved good-bye to his friends. Once he and Ben were outside, he wrapped an arm around Ben’s shoulder. “Listen to me, boychik. You have some big changes coming your way. What’s important to remember is that your mother and your father will love you just as much in two houses as in one house. Sometimes things stay the same, sometimes they change. This is life!”

  Ben knew his parents would still love him. But he didn’t know how he’d feel having two bedrooms and two bus stops. It sounded very confusing.

  Grandpa Abe’s cane tapped as they walked down the front steps. “I know what you need to make you feel better. You need a big bowl of my matzo ball soup. It cures everything—common cold, influenza, even sadness. What’s better than a fat matzo ball?”

  “Okay,” Ben said. He’d always liked matzo ball soup, but he didn’t believe for a moment that it could cure his sad feelings.

  “Ben!” a voice called.

  “Hi, Pearl!” he called back.

  A girl ran up the walkway, toward the senior center, her blond ponytail bouncing against her neck. “I ran all the way here,” she explained, her cheeks bright red. “We’ve got a huge problem!”


  Pearl Petal tended to get excited about things. Ben had only known her for a short time, but he’d already figured out that she wasn’t the kind of girl who liked to sit quietly and watch life pass by. Her curiosity got her into trouble now and then, but that didn’t stop her. She asked questions. She stepped boldly into the unknown. She was the most adventurous kid Ben had ever met.

  Because Pearl also worked as an apprentice to Dr. Woo, she and Ben shared a big batch of secrets. So when she hollered, “We’ve got a huge problem,” his heart missed a beat.

  “What’s the matter?” Ben asked as Pearl skidded to a stop right in front of him. She stood so close that the toes of her sneakers touched his.

  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Grandpa Abe said.

  Ben wasn’t worried about ghosts. Ghosts weren’t real. But it was entirely possible that Pearl had seen something else, like a three-headed dog, a yeti, or a cyclops. Those things were real. Had something dangerous escaped the hospital, like the nasty child-eating kelpie they’d met in the basement pool?

  “It… it… it wasn’t a ghost.” A big wad of gum appeared between Pearl’s teeth as she chewed as fast as a squirrel. She glanced worriedly at Ben’s grandfather. He didn’t know any of their secrets. In fact, they’d been careful not to reveal their secrets to anyone. “Mrs. Mulberry was just at the store,” Pearl explained. Pearl’s family owned the Buttonville Dollar Store. “She bought a little box so she could carry her worm.”

  “Martha Mulberry has a worm?” Grandpa Abe asked with surprise.

  “She has a whole bunch of them,” Pearl said, fidgeting as if there were ants in her shoes. “But one of them is sick.”

  Ben furrowed his brow. This was very worrisome news. Mrs. Mulberry, president of the Buttonville Welcome Wagon Committee, was the snoopiest person in town. She’d ordered red compost worms from a fancy gardening catalog, not because she owned a compost bin, but because she wanted an excuse to meet Dr. Woo. The only way to get inside Dr. Woo’s hospital was to become an apprentice or to possess a sick worm that needed care.

  “She’s going to Dr. Woo’s right now!” Pearl cried, squeezing Ben’s arm so hard he thought it might snap in two.

  “Ow,” Ben said.

  “Sorry.” Pearl released her grip. “I’m just so worried. We have to stop her.”

  “Why would you keep Mrs. Mulberry from seeing Dr. Woo?” Grandpa Abe asked with a wag of his finger. “A sick worm should go to a worm doctor.”

  Ben’s grandfath
er didn’t understand what was at stake. If Martha Mulberry got inside the hospital, she’d ruin everything. She’d tell the whole world that Dr. Woo had a Portal into the Imaginary World. Dr. Woo would have to move to another town and leave Ben and Pearl behind!

  Pearl stared at Ben, her green eyes super wide. He knew that look. She wanted him to make up a story. Ben wasn’t a soccer star or a computer genius, but he did excel at one thing—creative storytelling. Some might call it lying.

  Ben gathered his thoughts. He imagined Mrs. Mulberry storming the hospital, the way an invader might storm a castle. She’d pillage the whole place, looking in every corner, not for gold or jewels, but for information. Gossip was her career. He looked up at his grandfather and delivered an explanation. “We want to stop Mrs. Mulberry because we… we don’t want to miss the worm examination. We’re Dr. Woo’s apprentices, so we need to learn as much as possible. That’s our job.”

  “Yep,” Pearl said with an eager nod. “It’s our job.”

  Grandpa Abe shrugged. “My grandson, the future worm doctor. This I never expected.” He pointed his cane down the sidewalk. “Well, what are you waiting for? Hurry!”

  Like horses released from the starting gate, Ben and Pearl raced away. Pearl took the lead, as usual, her shiny basketball shorts flapping against her knees.

  “I’ll keep the soup warm for you,” Grandpa Abe called.

  “Thanks!” Ben called back.

  Ben followed Pearl down Cedar Street and onto Cherry. They ran along the park, then took a right onto Maple, passing the duck pond and the closed gas station. Tall trees lined the road as it cut through the forest. Ben’s side started to ache, but he wasn’t about to complain. This was a million times better than playing checkers. He and Pearl were on a mission to protect Dr. Woo’s secrets! One more bend in the road and they’d be able to see the hospital.

  “Whoa!” Pearl cried as a yellow tennis ball rolled across her path, nearly tripping her.

  If Ben had been back home in Los Angeles, he would have assumed that the ball had escaped from a tennis court or a golden retriever’s mouth. But this was Buttonville, which was nothing like home. Ben stumbled, then grabbed the ball. It was drenched in something slimy.

  “Slobber,” he realized. Then he looked around and gasped. A huge head stuck out of the forest.

  And it belonged to a dragon.


  A little over a week ago, Ben might have fainted at the sight of a dragon squatting at the edge of a forest. But at the time, Ben had believed that dragons existed only in storybooks. Now he knew the truth.

  This particular dragon was as wide as a Cadillac and covered in black scales. He had four legs, a pair of wings, and a mouth filled with sharp, serrated teeth. Although the dragon was capable of spouting fire and melting metal, Ben wasn’t one bit afraid. “Hi, Metalmouth,” Ben said as he and Pearl ran up to the friendly beast.

  “Hiya, Ben. Hiya, Pearl.” Branches swayed as the dragon thumped his long tail. A gray feather was stuck between two of his sharp teeth. Metalmouth liked eating pigeons. His eyes widened as he spied the tennis ball in Ben’s hand. “You wanna play fetch? Huh? Wanna?” His tongue popped out and he started panting.

  “We shouldn’t,” Pearl told him. “Someone might see you.”

  “Aw, please,” Metalmouth begged, his tail thumping again.

  Ben couldn’t resist. The dragon was the closest he’d come to having a dog. “Just one toss,” Ben said as he threw the ball back into the forest. Metalmouth bounded after it, shaking the ground like an earthquake and breaking only a few trees in the process. Ben and Pearl followed him deeper into the forest, away from the road in case any cars drove past. During the day, Metalmouth was usually asleep in his nest on the hospital roof. If Mrs. Mulberry saw him, she’d call the zoo!

  The dragon dropped the ball at Ben’s feet. “You wanna play again? Huh?”

  “Metalmouth, what are you doing out here?” Pearl asked.

  “I came to tell you something.” He tucked the tennis ball behind one of his scales. A loud crunch sounded as he sat on a huckleberry bush. “Mr. Tabby’s canceling your apprenticeship.” Mr. Tabby was Dr. Woo’s assistant.

  “Canceling?” Ben gulped. “Forever?”

  “Not forever. Just for tomorrow.”

  “Did I do something wrong?” Pearl asked. “I don’t think I broke any more rules. But I might have. I’m not sure.”

  “Mr. Tabby doesn’t want you at the hospital tomorrow, because…” The dragon took a deep, wheezy breath. “Because…” He opened his mouth so wide the kids could see his uvula. Then he sneezed. A gale-force wind roared over Ben and Pearl, coating them with dragon germs and nearly knocking them off their feet. The pigeon feather came loose, too.

  “Eeew,” Pearl said, scrunching her nose. Metalmouth’s breath wasn’t worse than a dog’s—there was just a lot more of it.

  Ben wiped his face with his sleeve. “Are you sick?”

  “No,” the dragon said with a frown. “Dr. Woo is sick, but not me. I’m not…” He took another deep breath. This time, both Ben and Pearl covered their faces as the sneeze blew over their heads. “Uh-oh,” Metalmouth said, his shoulders sagging. “I don’t wanna be sick. I don’t wanna take medicine.” He might have descended from a long line of ferocious, village-burning beasts, but Metalmouth was a big baby at heart.

  “What kind of sick?” Ben asked uneasily. “A cold? Or the flu?”

  “I had the flu once,” Pearl said. “It felt like a Martian was living in my stomach.”

  “Is it contagious?” Ben asked worriedly. “Will I need to get a shot?” While Ben didn’t mind taking medicine, he really hated getting injections. He’d had a whole series of them on account of his allergies.

  “A shot?” Metalmouth said, his ears flattening.

  Pearl patted his paw. “Maybe you won’t need medicine or a shot. How long does this thing last?”

  “I don’t know.” Metalmouth shrugged. “Mr. Tabby said the sickness came from the Imaginary World. And we have to be careful we don’t give it to any of the humans in Buttonville. That’s why Mr. Tabby canceled for tomorrow. He wanted me to warn you not to come to the hospital.” Then he coughed.

  It was a full-frontal germ bath!

  “Uh, thanks for the warning,” Ben said. He didn’t want to hurt the dragon’s feelings by pointing out that he and Pearl would probably be stricken with the mysterious illness, thanks to that dose of dragon mucus. Ben could practically feel the germs squirming their way up his nose and down into his lungs.

  “I’m not afraid of getting sick,” Pearl said, jutting out her chin. “Besides, we have to go to the hospital because we’re on an important mission. Mrs. Mulberry has a sick worm. We’ve got to keep her from getting inside so she doesn’t see anything she’s not supposed to see.”

  “You mean the loud lady who’s standing at the front gate?” Metalmouth asked, steam wafting from his nostrils. “She’s scary.”

  It was sort of funny to think that a huge dragon could be frightened of a small woman like Mrs. Mulberry, but Ben didn’t laugh. Metalmouth was only ten years old in human years—the same age as Ben and Pearl. Even Ben felt a bit frightened of Mrs. Mulberry. “She won’t hurt you,” Ben assured Metalmouth as he patted the dragon’s other front paw. “But it’s super important you don’t let her see you because she’ll tell everyone.”

  “Yeah,” Pearl said. “Everyone.”

  Metalmouth frowned. “That would be bad. Whenever people find out about me and Dr. Woo, we have to move. I don’t want to move again.”

  “I wouldn’t want to move, either,” Pearl said. “I’ve lived above the Dollar Store all my life. No other place would feel like home.”

  Ben cringed at the word home, remembering the morning’s phone call.

  “Whenever I get sad about moving, Dr. Woo tells me that home isn’t a place. It’s a state of mind.” Metalmouth scratched behind his ear. “I don’t really know what that means.”

nbsp; What does that mean? Ben wondered. For him, home was definitely a place. It was located in Los Angeles, and it had five bedrooms, an outdoor pizza oven, and a swimming pool.

  “You won’t have to move,” Ben assured him.

  “You can count on us,” Pearl said. “We’ll get rid of Mrs. Mulberry.”

  “I sure hope so.” Metalmouth tossed back his head and coughed again. The shock wave knocked pinecones off nearby trees.

  “You should go to bed and rest,” Pearl told him. “I mean, go to your nest and rest.”

  “Okay. But I still don’t want to take any medicine.” Metalmouth unfurled his wings, and after much flapping and the breaking of more branches, he rose toward the sky.

  Ben and Pearl ran back to the road. Now they had two worries. They needed to stop Mrs. Mulberry, and they needed to stay healthy. Was that a tickle at the back of Ben’s throat? Did his forehead feel hot already? “If I get some kind of weird disease, my parents are going to freak out,” he said, trying his best to keep up with Pearl. He didn’t want to think about the possibility that he’d be sent back home to Los Angeles to see Dr. Rosenbaum, his pediatrician. Dr. Rosenbaum always pounded Ben’s knees with a rubber hammer and stared into Ben’s eyeballs with a small flashlight.

  And gave shots!

  Ben and Pearl raced the rest of the way down Maple Street, until they reached the dead end at the old button factory gate.


  The Buttonville Button Factory had closed many years ago, leaving most of the townspeople without jobs. After the closure, the ten-story building had stood unused and abandoned. But now it was home to Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital. The doctor had made no exterior changes—windows were still broken, paint was still peeling, and the lawn was still choked with weeds. One patch had recently grown two stories high, having been fertilized by a pile of dragon dung Pearl had thrown off the roof. It wasn’t a pretty setting—no one stopped to take photos and say, “Oh, how lovely. This should be on the cover of a magazine.” But it had turned out to be a great place to hide a dragon, a sasquatch, and lots of other creatures, thanks to the tall wrought-iron fence that surrounded the property, and the locked gate that kept out anyone with a snoopy disposition.