She fully expected him to have already died when she arrived. That, although her home was not too far from his, she would open the door and find him with the sheets over his body. No, though she knew he had minutes left, she felt like sighing with relief when she saw that he was still alive, though barely. The rays of sunlight beaming on his body did make him look livelier than he actually was; the Mystic sitting next to his bed even looked more corpselike.
‘Greta,’ croaked George, raising his head slightly, ‘Greta, you came.’ He looked down, and saw the smaller gryphon clinging to his mother’s leg. ‘And there’s my grandson.’ He attempted to force out a laugh, but only let loose a fit of coughing, punctuated by an involuntary squawk.
‘George!’ cried Greta, holding his wizened claw in hers.
‘Do not worry about me,’ said George, looking upwards, ‘You’ve seen worse than this.’ Greta’s only response was a nod. ‘And you have Gideon there. I know he will make me proud.’ He let go of Greta’s claw, and took a look around. ‘I just wish your brother could be here.’
Greta snatched her claw away from George’s. After a second of silence, she rubbed her beak and said, ‘Gilbert. You…disowned him.’
‘A decis…a decision I regret,’ said George before another fit of coughing, ‘it is too late for me to apologise to him in person, but I want…I want you to find h…’
Greta looked down at her trembling hand before she grabbed the sheet and put it over her father’s body. The Mystic stood up and drew a circle around the body with his claw, before lifting up the claw, guiding George’s soul to where he would finally get some peace. Both Greta and her son kneeled as the Mystic performed his ritual.
‘Mystic,’ said Greta, for that was what he preferred to be called, ‘could…’ She swallowed. ‘Could you help me find my brother?’
The mystic nodded, and beckoned Greta and Gideon away from George’s hut and into his own. Greta looked back on her father’s home, and then back to the Mystic. She closed her eyes, thinking back to her childhood. She was the eldest of George’s two children, but it was a male George wanted to continue on his legacy, to fight against the humans that had caused their kind trouble for so long.
When Gilbert was hatched, that’s who George directed his attention towards, trying to teach him the same techniques he had studied as a child. In her youth, Greta had never paid them much attention, turning her focus towards her studies and the books – though she remembered Gilbert had shown more interest in those books than she did. That’s how he ended up in this situation though, wasn’t it?
For most of her childhood, she had ignored George and Gilbert, but them both bursting out of their home, screeching at one another, that she could not ignore. ‘After what the humans have done to us,’ snarled George.
‘George, I thought they were…’
‘They enslaved us, they treat us like mere dogs, and it’s because of them your mother died. And you bring their literature into my home!’
‘I liked them! I thought they…’
George came closer to Gilbert and seized him by his arms, gritting his beak. ‘Not only has your performance in our training exercises been disappointing, but you support the works of who we are fighting against?’
Seeing this made Greta run away and crawl in that little hole she had used for hide and seek years ago, until George came for her.
‘What seems to be the matter, Greta?’ he said, offering her his claw.
After being pulled out, Greta replied, ‘I just saw you talking to Gilbert…’
George’s eyes narrowed, making Greta cringe. ‘He is no son of mine, and he is no brother of yours.’
After that incident, Greta was inspired to enlist in various gryphon training programmes, at least the ones that accepted females. For years she had trained to use swords, bows and arrows as well as the claws and wings she was born with. During these classes she met Gregory, who helped her with her archery, a subject she was struggling in. They later wed and gave birth to Gideon, shortly before Gregory died in a battle against the humans.
As much as she and her kind fought the humans, she still kept telling herself that if she found Gideon reading human literature like Gideon did, she would let him. She wouldn’t disown him for that. She had also entertained the idea of one day making peace with the humans; she even believed one reason she fought against the humans was for the possibility that doing so would make the humans realise how strong and powerful her kind really were.
If you want peace, prepare for war.
When Greta stepped into the Mystic’s hut, and the Mystic took a look into his fountain, Greta once again expected death. The image in the fountain would reveal Gilbert’s rotting carcass, another in a list of people Greta had lost in her life. Even then, she involuntarily blurted out ‘Is he alive?’
‘Greta,’ said Gideon, holding his mother by the leg again, ‘are you alright?’
‘I’m fine,’ said Greta, her voice almost a squeak.
‘I’m sorry about George,’ said Gideon, fluttering upwards so he could look at his mother in the eye.
‘I know you are,’ replied Greta before turning back to the Mystic, who had brought his face closer to the fountain. There was a brief glow emanating from the fountain’s water before the Mystic jerked his head back violently, almost hitting the wall behind him.
‘Gilbert!’ shrieked Greta, almost hitting Gideon with her frantic movements.
‘Your brother is still alive,’ said the Mystic, which made Greta laugh slightly before the Mystic added, ‘He is in the Madlands.’
Greta froze. She knew there were worlds out there other than her own, including one where no gryphons lived but the humans there told stories about how ferocious they were. Many of her kind feared that place, but sometimes Greta had thought about finding a way there, just to show the humans there how her kind really were. The Madlands, however…only one of her kind had been to that place and returned. His speech was nonsensical and incoherent, and he eventually killed himself with a sword across the throat. Even Gideon hid away from the mere mention of the Madlands.
‘Calm down!’ snapped Greta, pulling Gideon away from the doorframe, ‘I taught you better than that.’
‘You seem intent on going to the Madlands,’ said the Mystic, with an expression that seemed to make his white feathers turn to grey, ‘If so, I must applaud your bravery. But it is not easy to enter.’
‘I’ll find a way,’ said Greta, ‘Just imagine what insanity he is going through at this moment.’
He always felt better after a nap, even if the nap lasted about a minute or so, or was rudely interrupted. Maybe it was how soft the ground was in the Queen’s courtyard; apparently, it was so soft it made even the flowers sleepy. Still, when he was awoken by the Queen of Hearts barking ‘Up, lazy thing!’ he immediately felt a surge of energy and leapt up onto his feet, saluting.
‘Take this young lady to see the Mock Turtle, and to hear his history. I must go back and see after some executions I ordered.’ The Gryphon found himself tempted to laugh whenever the Queen spoke about the executions, but forced his beak shut, holding his pose. When the Queen hobbled away back to her game, the Gryphon looked down at the young woman he was supposed to escort, looking up at him as if he were of her own species. Yet just from giving her a look over, the Gryphon could tell she neither was from this world or the one he was born in.
After rubbing his eyes, half from waking up, half from some disbelief, he said, ‘What fun!’, finally letting loose that laugh he had bottled up.
‘What is the fun?’
‘Her,’ he replied, ‘They never executes nobody!’ Speaking of bloodshed, or at least the potential for it, did bring Gilbert’s mind back to his homeworld, but only for a moment. Everything I had back there is gone, he told himself, even my name. It was just “The Gryphon” he was known as now. He knew several people who preferred to be called by their occupation rather than their actual name, so why not him?
When he took the girl over to the beach where the Mock Turtle usually resided, he learned that the girl’s name was Alice. Strange name that, thought the Gryphon, though he didn’t say it aloud. He remembered hearing somewhere that a name had to mean something, and he certainly wasn’t sure what Alice meant. Then again, he didn’t really know what Gilbert meant either.
The Mock Turtle, he knew what that meant. The Mock Turtle, the only name he gave himself, the only name he could remember. The Mock Turtle, the Gryphon’s old friend.
Sobbing as usual. Yet what had he to be sad about? The sun was shining, the birds were cawing away in the distance…no, he had plenty to be sad about, didn’t he? That, however, was something neither the Gryphon nor the Mock Turtle liked to talk about. All the Gryphon said about the Mock Turtle’s crying was that it was all his fancy, for that’s what the Mock Turtle wanted him to say.
He also said to the Turtle, ‘This young lady wants to know your history, she do.’
So, the Gryphon and Alice sat down as the Mock Turtle stood on a sandy rock, resembling a pristine statue atop a pedestal as he did so. The Gryphon instantly assumed the Mock Turtle would start talking about their schooldays, but then the Mock Turtle said, ‘Once I was a real turtle…’
It was obvious that the Turtle wanted to continue, the way his lips were pursed, and the hiss escaping from his lips. The Gryphon felt a tingle in his stomach, and his beak itch, yet he resisted the urge to cajole the Turtle to continue. The only sound he made was a cough.
Soon enough, the Turtle wiped his face and said, ‘When we were little, we went to school in the sea.’
The Gryphon leaned back on a nearby rock as he saw his old school materialise right in front of him. It was when he was a teenager he had first come to Wonderland, and its breathable sea was the first place he ended up in. It was even where he had found his new home – in a café called The Cod Swallows. The owner, a giant cod known only as Cod of course, had taken pity on the Gryphon and had promised him asylum in exchange for helping him out at the café. He even enrolled him in a nearby school, one that wasn’t too expensive yet had been recommended.
The school was apparently inspired by a school from Earth, where its literature had been collected from. Wonderland had people whose main jobs were finding portals to Earth and retrieving objects from that world – the White Rabbit probably being the most famous of them all. Turtle had wanted to be one of those people, but he was told that, in his current condition, he would be too conspicuous.
At the school, many people had avoided the Turtle – he was a mock turtle and mock turtles were persistently hunted – and the Gryphon was the only one who spoke to him. The Cod Swallows made sure never to serve mock turtle soup, and thus the Turtle went there often and enjoyed several vegetarian meals prepared by the Gryphon himself.
Alice asked more questions about the school and more images popped into the Gryphon’s head. They had also collected poetry from Earth, and the old crab taught them. Laughing and Grief, he called them, for he said their main purpose was either to make you laugh or cry, mostly the latter. “‘Tis the Voice of the Sluggard” was Laughing, because the life of the sluggard was comical, but it was also Grief, because the possibility that one could end up like the sluggard was a sad one.
The Gryphon had studied poetry extensively, and written so much of his own. Part of him had wanted to go to Earth to share his poetry but the people of Wonderland, and the people of Aquilabestia, had told him so many times that the people of Earth would fear and hunt him. School wasn’t all fear and verse though, there were games too, oh, were there games.
The school may have had only one Mock Turtle, but it also boasted several lobsters, who were more than happy to share with the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle their Lobster Quadrille. So too did the Gryphon and the Turtle share it with Alice, meticulously explaining each step of it, and the song that accompanied it.
In return, Alice told of her adventures in Wonderland. The Mock Turtle cringed when he heard of the Drink Me potion, yet intently listened through everything else. The Gryphon too had met the Cheshire Cat on several occasions, what an annoying bugger he was. Mentioning the Queen and her croquet game, however, brought up more images in the Gryphon’s head.
Shortly before the Gryphon left school, the Cod Swallows had suffered financial difficulties due to lack of customers and was facing closure. Thus when Gryphon’s studies were complete, he looked for a new line of work, with the Turtle giving suggestions all the way. Eventually, they found none other the Queen of Hearts wanted a new cook, which seemed to be a sign from some higher force. The Gryphon still remembered the response he got when he entered with the Turtle: ‘You’re not preparing Mock Turtle soup, are you? It makes me nauseous.’
Yes, certainly a gift from the heavens.
The Gryphon was even sure he only got the job because he wanted to keep the Mock Turtle alive. He cooked for the Queen, and even acted as a sort of entertainer, doing the Lobster Quadrille and reciting his poetry at the Queen’s croquet games and parties. Doing so gave him a slight twinge of regret, given how a botched performance for the Queen had sentenced the Mad Hatter to an infinite time loop, yet he still danced, he still sang, and still sent a portion of his money to Cod.
It felt good. It felt wonderful.
The Mystic not only agreed to give Greta a map to the most common places for portals to pop up, but had offered to take care of Gideon too. Greta had suggested Gideon go along too, to learn about the sacrifices that needed to be made when rescuing a fellow gryphon, but then realised that he may fall to the madness too. This also led to a troubling thought – what if Gilbert had gone irreversibly insane? What if there was no way to release him from the strangleholds of madness but death?
Still, Greta swallowed and flew over the world, high enough so passers-by would mistake her for a bird or another flying creature, but low enough so she could see where she was going. The most common spot to find portals to the Madlands was somewhere in the forests of Fornestone, where Gilbert liked to go to think by himself. Since he had been gone, however, a significant portion had been chopped away to expand the town. Even in the wooded areas, humans had become more frequent, hunting animals and gathering wood.
Greta narrowed her eyes.
She dove, landing in a clearing a fair distance from the town. It wasn’t this area the portals usually appeared in, no, according to the map, it was a little closer to the town. The town where innocent gryphons were slaughtered for meat or raised to carry goods. Greta considered postponing the search and just diving into the town, yet she couldn’t help but follow the map’s directions. A few spots to the right. Should be just a few…
‘Gryphon!’ came the cry. A man had been collecting firewood, and now intended to use his axe for another purpose. As soon as Greta saw the shimmer of sadism in his eyes, she slashed at him, and was about to knock him over with her hind legs before her beak got whacked by the blunt end of the axe. Her wings flapped almost by instinct, lifting her up to the tallest tree nearby.
‘What are you doing up there?’ sneered the man, ‘You a coward?’
Too many of her kind had fallen to humans. No more.
The trees had shrunk and had become much thicker, their leaves now purple and orange and pink. The sky was cluttered with clouds of bizarre shapes, bearing more resemblance to spoiled milk than what she would normally flutter around. There were also more flowers than there usually were, each of them with a clearly human face.
‘I’m here,’ said Greta to no-one in particular.
‘Of course you are,’ came a nasally voice behind her, ‘I’m here too. Unless you define “here” as the place you are sitting, in that case, I am elsewhere.’
Greta turned around to see three figures at a table, their faces slightly shadowed by the tree they sat under. She came closer and saw at the head of the table a giant hare, sitting like a gryphon or a human would, and wearing clothes. It looked like a man had slain a giant hare and was wearing its head as some sort of celebration. This, however, was a living, breathing hare, with blinking eyes and a tongue that lapped up liquid from a cup.
Next to him was a small rodent, fast asleep, and next to him was a human, a diminutive one whose head was smaller than the hat he wore. Greta opened her beak to speak, but the Hare blurted out, ‘Hey, look fellows, it’s our friend, the Gryphon!’
‘Are you sure that’s him?’ said the man in the hat, ‘I think it’s a gryphon, not The Gryphon.’
Greta swiped her claw against the tea-things, sending them clattering onto the ground. ‘Your tricks will not work on me!’
‘I say,’ said the Hare, ‘has she no manners?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said the man in the hat, ‘she doesn’t look like she could afford to live in one.’
‘Enough!’ Greta slammed her fist on the table and grabbed the man by the bow he had around his neck. ‘My brother is here, and you’re going to tell me where he is!’
‘Oh,’ said the Hare, laughing, ‘our friend’s your brother. You know, that reminds me of my brother somewhat. He was born in June, I was born in March, so my parents always said…’
‘Oh, alright,’ said the man in the hat, ‘usually he is here…’
‘I don’t see him.’
‘…and by that, I mean the Queen’s courtyard. There’s a croquet game, so many people will be calling it “here”, and if several people give it that name, then surely it has that name.’
Greta threw the man in the hat away, and took to the skies, flying through the spoiled milk clouds. The man and the hare hadn’t given much information, but at least they wanted conversation as opposed to oppression, and a Queen’s courtyard wasn’t too difficult to find. Sure enough, she spotted the giant pink towers marked with hearts instantly.
She swooped down, but tumbled on the ground during the landing, almost hitting her head on a wooden post. Perhaps, she thought, it was the sight of those flat men. Greta had seen myriad bizarre things during her time fighting for her species, but not those. She found herself unable to look away, unable to think of anything but what their organs were like, if they had a skeleton, or what it would be like to be one of them.
There was only one thing that could snap her out, and that thing popped up right in front of her. A giant disembodied cat head.
‘Oh, another newcomer,’ it said, ‘but a redundant one. Most newcomers we have are humans and we have too many of them. You’re a gryphon and we already have one over there,’ it added as a hand materialised to the left of its head. All thoughts of what magic it used escaped Greta’s head as she dashed towards the familiar figure observing a rose bush. Of course he was older and taller, but it was undeniably him.
‘Gilbert! Gilbert, it’s me!’
It was definitely Gilbert; the expression he had on his face was one Greta had seen only on him. ‘G…’ His claws shook, yet his body remained completely still.
All of a sudden, the two gryphons lost all control, and embraced each other in a hug before Gilbert released her. ‘Greta!’ said Gilbert, almost choking on that word, ‘Did…did…’
‘Gilbert,’ said Greta, after taking a deep breath, ‘George is dead.’ Gilbert sounded like he was choking again. He held his stomach, and then looked at the grass, seemingly biting his own beak. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Greta, ‘before he died, he said…he said he’s sorry for disowning you. He wanted me to find you.’
Gilbert sighed. ‘You know, Greta, I’ve had thoughts ‘bout going back, I have. I know a way how even. But every time I tried, I’d…’ He turned away, and Greta couldn’t tell whether he was sobbing or laughing.
‘Do you really want to stay in the Madlands?’
‘Wonderland. It’s called Wonderland.’
‘Gilbert,’ continued Greta, ‘How can you stay here and not even try to correspond?’ Gilbert turned back to his sister. ‘I’ve been trying to save my kind from the humans. I, and…my husband.’
‘Oh,’ said Gilbert, ‘You were married?’
‘He’s gone,’ replied Greta.
‘We…we had a child together. His name is Gideon. You’re an uncle, Gilbert.’
Gilbert looked as if he had forgotten how to breathe, and collapsed onto the grass. Just as Greta was about to help him up, another human approached, along with the flat creatures. A bloated human in a crimson dress, her face looking proud and warped at the same time.
‘Who is this?’ asked the woman, pointing her staff at Greta. Greta swiped at the woman. ‘Off with her head!’ Greta began to beat her wings until she heard Gilbert scream, ‘Greta, no!’
‘G-greta,’ said Gilbert, stretching his body, ‘This is the Queen of Hearts. She’s my employer, she is.’
Greta grabbed Gilbert by the arm, taking him to a corner of the courtyard. ‘You willingly let a human control you? You let yourself become the slave to that murderous maniac?’
‘Look, Greta, she never executes nobody! She’s just having a bit of fun!’
‘In Aquilabestia,’ snarled Greta, ‘our kind are captured and are forced into labour. Have you forgotten that?’ Gilbert then turned away, looking at the flat men playing their little game. ‘Are you listening to me?’
‘I was just thinking, I was,’ said Gilbert, ‘what if you brought …you brought Gideon…and you two came to live here with me?’
‘And abandon my people when they need me?’ Greta struck Gilbert across the face. ‘Truly this world has made you insane.’
‘But they treats me well! I’m accepted here, and I’m certain you shall be too! I actually think we should just go and bring the entire gryphon population here!’
Greta opened her mouth to speak, but then thought for a moment. ‘Gilbert, come back with me. You can stay as long as you like. Just to see your nephew, just so you can see what’s become of our kind. Then, if you want to go back to this lunatic world, you can bloody well do so.’
With a nod, Gilbert took Greta by the claw and they both left the courtyard. On the way to their destination, Gilbert told Greta that Wonderland had a similar tradition to what the gryphons had; gryphons with significant jobs were referred to only as their title, and Gilbert just went by “The Gryphon” in Wonderland. Soon, they reached their destination, a sandy beach where a deformed monstrosity awaited Greta. She couldn’t help but scream. The creature covered itself with its flippers.
‘What is that thing?’
Gilbert shot Greta a frosty stare. ‘That is my friend, he is. The Mock Turtle.’ After shaking off his frown, Gilbert turned to the Turtle. ‘Turtle, this is my sister, Greta.’ The Mock Turtle held out his flipper, which made Greta involuntarily jump back. Even though she then extended her claw to shake the flipper, the Mock Turtle recoiled and cried harder. ‘Oh, go ahead and laugh.’
‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Gilbert.
‘How…how could you…’
‘Greta,’ sighed Gilbert, ‘what are you saying?’
‘Nothing,’ said Greta, rubbing her forehead, ‘nothing. How do we get back to Aquilabestia?’
The Mock Turtle stopped crying, and turned to his friend. ‘You’re going back home?’
‘It’s just for a little while,’ said Gilbert, ‘Don’t you worry your big old head. I’ll be back before you know it, I will.’
‘I know you’ll be back,’ said the Turtle, ‘but even then, I’m not sure I like you being with that woman, even if it is your own flesh and blood and feathers and claws. If she was your own flesh and blood and feathers and claws and mind, I might reconsider.’
‘Listen,’ growled Greta, putting her face in front of the Turtle’s, ‘I’ve been persecuted and hunted, as have the rest of my kind…’
‘You are not the only one who’s been hunted.’ The Turtle grimaced, wiping away a tear. ‘Anyway, here is how you get back home.’ His left flipper disappeared into his shell, and from it, he pulled out a brass bell. ‘Ring this bell and summon the owl.’
‘You know, Greta,’ said Gilbert, ‘we had another person here that weren’t from here. We would have let her have the bell, but she seemed intent on staying.’
‘Was it from Aquilabestia?’
‘Nope. I know an Aquilian when I sees one. This weren’t no Aquilian.’
‘Hopefully,’ said Greta, half to herself, half to Gilbert, ‘when we get back home, we can straighten out your diction too.’
Gilbert took the bell and stood by the shore, letting the sea wash all over his furry feet. He rang the bell, and then sat down with eyes fixed on the horizon. As soon as Greta sat by him, a boat seemed to materialise out of nowhere. A bright green boat, being steered by a plump little owl with a waistcoat. Though the owl was a large one, and kept a guitar in the boat with him, there was more than enough room for the two gryphons to fit in.
‘Alright, where to?’ asked the owl, eying his guitar as if just about to play it.
‘Aquilabestia,’ said Greta.
‘Hmm,’ said the owl, stroking his beak with his wing, ‘never been there. But I can give it a shot.’ And off he went. ‘You know, I love this job,’ said the Owl, ‘just being out here on the sea is payment enough. Reminds me of my wife.’ He looked at the water and sighed. ‘She loved sailing, you know. I hope she’s happy wherever she is.’
Greta couldn’t help but bow her head too. The waters reminded her of Gregory, and one of the first nights they spent together. They flew together over the ocean, admiring the reflection of the full moon and how it illuminated their forms. Greta had even taken Gideon down to the shore a couple of times, just to remind him of his father.
‘She fell from a tree. Poor thing,’ said the Owl, continuing his rowing, ‘I wrote a song about it. Would you like to hear it?’
Gilbert said yes. Greta said no.
‘Never mind,’ said the Owl, ‘didn’t really want to do it anyway. You people look miserable enough.’
Greta shuffled. ‘Are you from Wonderland?’
‘No,’ said the Owl, ‘In fact, I don’t think the land I come from even has a name.’
Gilbert looked behind him. ‘I see it disappearing.’
‘Wonderland. We’ll be…’ He turned around and twitched. ‘We’ll be in Aquilabestia in no time.’
‘Gilbert,’ said Greta, ‘have you been to any other worlds?’
‘No,’ said Gilbert, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a trip to wherever the Owl comes from, and this one other place I’ve heard of, the one with the big castle made out of emeralds. Just never got round to it. Too much on my mind, I suppose.’
The skies grew darker. Mountains began to materialise. There wasn’t any fog; they just seemed to pop out of nowhere. There it was, the same beach she and Gregory had that special evening together. It was dangerous to be here; it was too close to a human town. ‘Gilbert, hurry,’ barked Greta, grabbing Gilbert by the hand.
She beat her wings so hard they ached, pulling Gilbert towards the gryphons’ haven. ‘Slow down,’ cried Gilbert, ‘I almost dropped the bell!’
At that, they landed on a rock, Greta stretching her already-long neck. ‘This is why you need me, Gilbert. You won’t survive with the attitude, so you need to change it.’
‘I once met a person who tried to exchange his attitude,’ said Gilbert, ‘but sadly, nobody wanted it.’
Greta grumbled, and then took Gilbert by the hand once more, this time on foot. Soon they reached the small village, with Gilbert looking at the huts with what looked like reminiscence. ‘You’re here!’ Then there came the Mystic, holding Gideon by the hand. ‘I trust the journey was a safe one.’
Gideon freed himself from the Mystic and ran for his mother, hugging her leg.
‘Greta,’ said Gilbert, ‘is this my nephew?’
‘Gideon.’ Greta shook her leg until Gideon let go, like she was dealing with a misbehaving dog. ‘This is your uncle Gilbert.’
Gideon leapt towards Gilbert, and Gilbert responded by lifting him up so the two could see eye to eye. ‘C’mere,’ said Gilbert, ‘you look just like your mother, you do.’
‘Listen to him,’ said Greta, ‘he didn’t talk like that before George disowned him.’
Gilbert turned to Greta. ‘And what may be wrong with the way I talk?’ He turned upwards and added, ‘Certainly there seems to be bigger things to worry about.’ Then Gideon started tugging on Gilbert’s waistcoat and Gilbert burst into laughter.
‘Look at his ridiculous clothing,’ said the Mystic, ‘he must have been strongly affected by the Madlands.’
‘Wonderland,’ corrected Gilbert.
‘Wonderland?’ Gideon’s eyes lit up and he smiled widely.
‘Yes,’ said Gilbert, turning to his nephew, ‘It is indeed a wonderful place. I do wish you could come there, but your mother…’
‘Don’t say that,’ snapped Gideon.
‘Don’t say what?’
‘Greta said not to call her mother,’ said Gideon.
‘Oh, of course,’ sighed Gilbert.
‘I am a mother,’ said Greta, extending her neck to put her head between those of Gilbert and Gideon, ‘but calling me mother means you are thinking of me as just that. If Gideon called me that, he would be overlooking what I am trying to do for my species. The Mystic is a mystic and doesn’t intend to be anything else, so we call him The Mystic, but I am trying to be more than just a mother. George was more than just a father, so we didn’t call him father.’ She then seized her son from Gilbert. ‘Don’t you want to be like him? Don’t you want to battle against human oppression?’
‘Well,’ said Gilbert, ‘I suppose…’
‘Go with the Mystic.’ Greta put Gideon down, and then shot Gilbert a cold stare. ‘Hopefully he can rattle some of the nonsense out of your brain.’ So the Mystic beckoned Gilbert to follow him, and Gilbert did so, though his eyes were on Gideon the whole time.
‘I don’t know what you have planned for me,’ said Gilbert when he entered the Mystic’s hut, ‘but I do not see why you have such a grievance with Wonderland.’
‘It is not your home,’ replied the Mystic.
‘It does more or less feel like it,’ replied Gilbert, ‘I got my best friend there and everything. It’s where I found my handing, it is.’
‘Your handing? You mean your footing?’
‘I did better writing when I was in Wonderland, and you write with your hand, don’t you? Or would you rather use a pen?’
The Mystic looked into his pot, and then added what looked like a sprinkle of sugar. He stared at his concoction for a full minute before it turned a brighter bluish hue, and the Mystic dipped a metal cup into the mixture. After pulling it out, he admired it for a while and then gave it to Gilbert.
‘This should make you more aware of what is happening,’ said the Mystic.
Without saying anything, Gilbert guzzled down the potion and involuntarily collapsed to the ground, looking up at the ceiling. All of a sudden, he saw his father again, in an image seemingly projected onto where he was looking. George was donning armour, which slowed down his flight, but made him stand out against the crimson clouds. Other gryphons followed him, also wearing armour, but not flying. Then there came the humans, wielding swords and crossbows and various other weapons Gilbert had seen in the Queen’s castle but had never seen used.
The scene changed to show Greta, cradling an egg. Beside her was another gryphon, a young, well-built one. Her husband. Gregory, she called him.
Once again Gilbert saw the battle, and Gregory wearing armour similar to that of George. He had a sword like those of the humans, but from the way he dropped his shield for a moment to look at his left claw, he had every intention of using that as well.
He lifted his shield again and ran into the battlefield. A human darted towards him, swinging his battleaxe.
Gilbert shrunk away.
A mist emanated from the Mystic’s pot, and seemed to enter Gilbert’s brain through his ear-holes. ‘I’ve heard of things going into one ear and out of the other,’ said Gilbert, ‘but…’
‘Silence!’ The mist surrounded the Mystic, he seemed to lift off the ground without the use of his wings, and then he descended. ‘Your world…the world in which you relocated to…there, you served a human. A human who had no real power, whose threats were as empty as her cranium.’
Gilbert wanted to defend his employer, and yet all he could say was ‘Yes.’
‘You have wings, you have claws, you were blessed with a mighty form. You far outpower the Queen of Hearts, as she is called. From what the mist has shown me, she is a poor ruler, but then again, what do you expect from humanity?
‘However, Wonderland itself fascinates me.’
‘Potions that make one shrink, food that makes one grow, valleys where you remain still, all this could be very beneficial to our cause. Imagine, you were in proximity to something that could enlarge us and you never told us. Selfish creature!’
‘I never saw any use for the stuff,’ replied Gilbert, ‘I’m quite happy being the size I am. I and Mock Turtle both.’
‘Certainly a turtle is not more important than your own kind. Now, you have a way we can travel to Wonderland?’
‘Indeed I do.’
‘Tomorrow you will help me plan an expedition there. That’ll leave you some time to get reacquainted with your true home.’
‘Very well,’ said Gilbert, ‘fact I was thinking we could all go there. The people like gryphons there, they do.’
‘Now please leave,’ said the Mystic, ‘Greta was right, you are rather hard to listen to.’
Gilbert left the Mystic’s hut and went back to that of his sister. As soon as he got back to the hut, he found none other than Gideon waiting for him, looking like a dog missing his owner. ‘He’s weird, isn’t he?’ said Gideon as soon as Gilbert arrived.
‘You know, the Mystic. I don’t like him that much.’
‘I think he just wants what’s best for us, he does,’ said Gilbert, looking back at the Mystic’s hut, then back at Gideon, ‘What he showed me was horrible.’
‘Yeah,’ said Gideon, ‘he showed me that too. He showed me what happened to George.’ He looked like he was about to cry. Gilbert got on one knee and put his hand on his nephew’s shoulder.
‘Oh, come on now,’ said Gilbert, ‘I…do you want me to teach you the lobster quadrille?’
‘What’s a lobster?’
Gilbert chuckled. ‘Lobsters are these big red sea creatures, and they have claws, but not claws like ours. No, their claws look more like beaks.’ He gestured towards his own beak, then he pressed his fingers together, made a ‘C’ shape with his hands, then simulated a lobster’s claws. ‘And they have big antennae coming out of their heads.’ He placed his fists on his forehead and lifted one finger from each hand, wiggling them about.
Out came Greta, sighing as soon as she saw her brother. ‘Hmm, seems the Mystic didn’t do you much good.’
Gilbert folded his arms. ‘Sorry, Greta, it’s just, you know, I thought Gideon could use a bit of a laugh with things being what they are.’
‘Gilbert,’ snarled Greta, ‘you really think this is a laughing matter? Did you see what they…’ Greta sighed. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you back. You don’t deserve this.’
‘No,’ said Gilbert, putting a hand on Greta’s shoulder as he did for her son, ‘no, I want to help.’
‘I don’t think you can,’ said Greta, taking Gilbert’s hand off, ‘I don’t think you should, now. We’ve suffered enough, and…’
‘No,’ Gilbert repeated, ‘the Mystic and I are going to Wonderland tomorrow, we are. We’ve got things there that’ll help us. Potions and cakes and mushrooms that make you grow and shrink.’
Greta’s eyes widened. ‘Well, hopefully that world’ll be good for something.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t…’ Gilbert walked inside the hut. ‘Hey, how about I make dinner tonight? I mean, from what I can see, you’re busy, so as long as I stay here, I think I should make food.’
‘Be my guest,’ was all Greta said before showing him her kitchen, one less advanced than what Gilbert had been used to, but he still saw something he could work with. His stomach turned, however, when he saw on the table a rabbit carcass.
‘What is that?’ he asked Greta, pointing at the rabbit.
‘It’s our dinner. Gideon caught it, you know.’
‘You…you made Gideon kill that?’
Greta’s eyes narrowed. ‘You know that young gryphons have to be taught how to hunt.’
‘Sorry, just, I work with a rabbit, I do. He’s a good friend.’
‘It’s not a talking rabbit,’ sighed Greta, ‘it was a normal one, one that sniffed around and didn’t talk.’
‘Did you meet him?’ asked Gilbert.
‘I met a hare like him.’
‘I know who you’re talking about,’ Gilbert scratched the underside of his beak. ‘I had tea with them a few times, I did. They’re nice people, though they are strange.’
Greta looked again at the dead rabbit, and then back at Gilbert. ‘Are you going to make the meal or not?’
‘Well,’ Gilbert turned to the rabbit himself, ‘it was a rabbit that didn’t talk?’ Greta nodded. ‘Very well then.’ So he prepared the rabbit, attempting to ignore how much it made him want to vomit. Thankfully for him, Greta had also collected some berries, so he could prepare a fruit salad for afters. When the rabbit was cooked, and the fruit salad was placed in the bowls, he gave them to Greta and Gideon, with a “Bon appetit”, a phrase he had learned in Wonderland.
‘Mmm,’ said Greta as she chewed on a leg, ‘you cooked this just right.’
‘You learn this stuff, you do,’ said Gilbert, ‘You know, the Cod Swallows was a real cosy place, it was, just wish you could have come with me…’
‘I needed to be here,’ said Greta, before taking another bite of her rabbit.
‘Maybe I need to be here too.’
Shortly after dinner, Greta prepared an extra bed for Gilbert, even giving him a little more hay than her bed had. Gilbert thanked her for it, but as night fell, he couldn’t get to sleep. He supposed that was appropriate, given that he was away from Wonderland, a place Alice apparently visited through going to sleep. This lack of sleep carried with it a sense of guilt, however; his sister, who had definitely faced worse than he had, was sleeping soundly. If he wasn’t sleeping, he thought, he was non-verbally implying he was worse off than his sister. Yet as much as he tried to force himself to, he couldn’t drop off.
He had seen the humans attack his kind. He had seen gryphons shot at just for going outside. Despite what he had seen, he went outside and took a walk. That’s what he did when he couldn’t sleep in Wonderland, and if he did in Wonderland what he did in Aquilabestia, Aquilabestia would be a bit more like Wonderland. He also thought that perhaps the humans would be asleep, so he would be safer than during the day.
Almost everything in Wonderland was brightly coloured, even at night, so there was something about the more muted colours of this land that made Gilbert’s head throb, yet he couldn’t close his eyes. The stars in the sky were particularly hypnotic, though they weren’t that different visually from those he saw at Wonderland. Yet they called to him, and he couldn’t help but beat his wings and rise up, embracing the winds. It was a different wind than that of Wonderland, one that carried a certain chill to it. A soothing chill, one that seemed to freeze Gilbert’s doubts.
Perhaps it was because of those frozen doubts that he flew on over to the beach, even though Greta told him about its vicinity to where humans lived. He was sure it actually had nothing to do with the Mock Turtle and where they used to talk; he just wanted to hear the crashing of the waves. It was the most soothing sound he could think of, and it was sure to make sleep easier. He didn’t even mind if he fell asleep right on the beach, for he was going there in the morning anyway.
In fact, sooner than that.
He lay on the sand, watching and listening to the waves, and was just about to nod off when none other than the Mystic fluttered in. ‘Good, you’re learning,’ said the Mystic.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Impatient as I am, eh? You know how important this journey is for the good of our people.’
Gilbert fiddled around in his jacket pocket and took out the bell. It was then he noticed that after leaving the hut and flying to the beach, he had taken the bell with him, and yet it never occurred to him to use the bell at the beach himself and leave. He did have a feeling that if he went back to Wonderland and never returned, Greta would have absolutely no complaints.
‘Well,’ said Gilbert, saying the first things that came into his head, ‘I can’t wait to show you around Wonderland.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Mystic, ‘I think it has just what we need to obliterate those humans.’
‘You heard me. We are superior to the humans in every way, yet we live in fear of them? Humans don’t deserve to be the dominant species. You’ve seen how they treat us!’
‘That don’t mean we have to kill them!’ cried Gilbert, ‘Them humans have done some good things! Have you not read their literature?’
‘You really think some silly poems make up for the way they’ve tortured and killed us?’ snarled the Mystic, gritting his beak, ‘That is worth risking our safety over?’
‘But there are some good humans out there, there are,’ said Gilbert, plucking out some of the feathers from his head, ‘Come on, I’ll even show you some good humans when we get to Wonderland.’
‘Yes, you will,’ said the Mystic, snatching the bell away from Gilbert’s claws, ‘they’ll be the first to fall.’
‘No! They’re my friends!’
‘Listen to you,’ snorted the Mystic, ‘you haven’t changed an iota. You’re exactly the same snivelling little child your father disowned. You’re going to need to change your attitude if you want to survive.
‘We are going to Wonderland. We are going to find anything we can be weaponized. We will destroy the humans and you are going to cooperate.’
He rang the bell.
As he waited for the vessel to arrive, he held Gilbert closely, and pulled up a dagger from his cloak. ‘I knew you would be too cowardly, so I came prepared.’ He held the dagger close to Gilbert’s throat, then put it away. ‘Don’t try anything to stop me. I’m sure Greta won’t even mourn you.’
Gilbert kept quiet, simply choosing to stare at the sea until the boat came. He dared not move or say anything, his stomach twisting from the thought of the dagger digging into his heart. Still, being so close to the angry Mystic called to mind a certain phrase he remembered reading – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.
The Owl soon arrived, and the Mystic loosened his grip, yet still held Gilbert by the wrist. Gilbert did consider biting the Mystic’s hand and flying away to get help from Greta, yet he couldn’t help but feel the Mystic would pursue him, catch up to him, and kill him.
‘Oh, you’re getting to be a regular,’ said the Owl, ‘and you’ve brought another friend. As they got on the boat, the Owl added, ‘You know, this is a pretty nice-looking place. I can see myself going here often. Even think the Mrs would have liked it.’
The Mystic sighed. ‘Just take us to Wonderland.’
‘Of course,’ said the Owl, ‘where are my manners?’
All throughout the voyage, the Mystic kept his eyes on Gilbert. Though Gilbert thought the Mystic might attack the Owl, he acted like the Owl didn’t exist (Gilbert guessed it was because the Owl was a bird, and in a sense, they were related).
Even in the nighttime, the sands and trees of Wonderland seemed to shine and glisten. Even the Mystic squinted as he stepped off of the boat, still holding Gilbert. They both stood and watched as the Owl drifted away.
‘I thought he’d never leave,’ came a familiar voice. Next to the two gryphons materialised a certain cat, looking like he was lying on an invisible hammock. ‘I knew you’d come back, Gryphon. And you brought another friend. Wonderland is getting to be quite the honeypot site.’
Gilbert could only sigh, hoping the Mystic didn’t hear him. Just what I need, he thought.
‘I’ve seen you in a vision,’ said the Mystic, tapping the cat’s teeth with a claw, ‘and your abilities intrigue me.’
‘One tries,’ replied the Cat.
‘Teach me them,’ said the Mystic, ‘it would be infinitely useful to my people.’
‘Would it?’ said the Cat, sounding as curious as young Alice, ‘Though, you know, everything must end. Time is going end one day, a statement which I’m sure will make the Hatter happy.’
‘What point are you trying to make?’
‘Time is not infinite, so neither you nor I are infinite. Thus my abilities won’t be infinitely useful, so I have no reason to teach you them.’
‘My kind fears it doesn’t have much time,’ said the Mystic, ‘but with the magic of this world, we can last longer. Tell me how you disappear and reappear.’
‘A magician never reveals his secrets,’ said the Cat.
‘That’s preposterous,’ snapped the Mystic, ‘I am a “magician” and I have shown young gryphons what goes into my work. Why can’t you tell me how you do what you do?’
‘Because then I’ll be less unique,’ said the Cat, ‘The world is only interesting if everyone is unique, and if I’m less unique, then the world will be less unique.’
The Mystic lunged for the Cat’s throat, but only managed to grab air. The Cat had made his body disappear, and now a disembodied cat head was in the air, sticking its tongue out. The Mystic tried to grab this head, only for it to float up.
Gilbert was free from the Mystic’s clutches, and the woods seemed to be beckoning him like Aquilabestia’s stars were earlier on. He inwardly begged himself not to escape, for that would mean leaving the Mystic unattended. It did pop into his mind to go and warn the others about the Mystic but still, that would leave the Mystic unattended.
He couldn’t help but think of the poor Mock Turtle getting stabbed with the dagger, maybe even being served as soup. The Mock Turtle wasn’t human, and it was humans the Mystic wanted to kill, but the Mystic did seem to think the Mock Turtle and those like him corrupted Gilbert’s mind.
Gilbert turned back to the Mystic, still occupied with the Cheshire Cat. Inwardly thanking the annoying creature for once in his life, Gilbert flew into the sky, and then dove into the breathable sea.
The Mock Turtle liked to come up to the beach often, but his home was underwater, a shack made of discarded ship parts. As soon as he saw it, Gilbert slammed his fists on the door, constantly looking upwards. Soon, out came the Turtle, rubbing his eyes with his flippers. ‘Gryphon,’ he said, ‘what is it?’
‘There’s this Mystic,’ explained the Gryphon, ‘he came here and you and the other people of Wonderland may be in danger….’
Splash. Down, down the Mystic dived, not at all surprised that he could breathe in this ocean.
‘Forget the Cat,’ he said to Gilbert, ‘there’s still many things to uncover here. Oh, and this must be your little friend, the one you were merrily prancing with while we cowered in fear!’ At that moment, however, the Turtle was the one cowering in fear, shielding his face with his flippers.
‘You’re not hurting him!’ cried Gilbert, spreading out his arms.
‘I will be,’ said the Mystic, holding up his dagger, ‘unless you cooperate.’
Without even thinking, Gilbert slugged the Mystic right under his beak and snatched the dagger away. He turned to the Mock Turtle, then grabbed him by the flipper and sent him soaring up into the air.
The Mystic looked up and smiled slightly. ‘Maybe you are your father’s son after all,’ he said, before leaping up into the air himself.
Gilbert quickly set foot back on the ground, and ran into the forests, carrying the Mock Turtle along for the ride. ‘Where are we going?’ asked the Turtle.
‘There’s some mushrooms ‘round here,’ said the Gryphon, stopping by one of the taller trees in the forest, ‘maybe we can overpower him with these. Remember, one side makes you taller, the other makes you smaller.’
‘Isn’t it the top that makes you bigger and the stalk that makes you smaller?’
‘No,’ said the gryphon as he held up a mushroom, ‘the right-hand side of the top makes you shrink, and the left-hand side makes you grow. You know which side we’re eating.’
All it took was one look at the mushroom and everything came back to the Turtle. He munched on the mushroom, and in seconds, his neck elongated, reminding Gilbert of a jack-in-the-box. Gilbert took a nibble himself, and his neck sprung up as well, knocking a few branches off of the trees.
‘Oh no!’ cried a bird from one of the trees, ‘Serpents again! Just when I thought I was finally rid of them!’ It was a misunderstanding Gilbert could understand, especially given one of the “serpents” actually was a reptile.
‘Pardon us,’ said Gilbert, as he lowered his head, with the Turtle doing the same. Though doing so sent pains shooting through his neck as it bent, he kept his neck low to keep a look out for the Mystic.
When he arrived, Gilbert took advantage of his resemblance to a snake.
He wrapped his neck around the body of the Mystic to restrain him, all the while resisting the urge to scream in pain. The Mock Turtle stared for a while, seemingly considering whether or not to do the same, but instead, just hit the Mystic’s head with his own. After the Mock Turtle slammed his face into that of the Mystic, Gilbert slammed the Mystic right against a tree. The two bent their necks again to eat the other side of the mushroom, and they returned to their regular sizes to look over their opponent.
‘You see?’ said the Mystic, ‘You knew about all these magical items, and yet you never shared. You chose to attack one of your own rather than the humans. Give me one of those mushrooms.’
‘You know,’ said Gilbert, ‘I’ve been thinking, I have. Just thinking why don’t we try to use these to make peace with the humans?’
‘I can offer these here things to the humans…’
‘You want them to have this power?’
‘I want them to make peace with us, I do. We can use this as an offering.’
‘How dare you even suggest…’ The Mystic lunged for Gilbert.
Then came Greta. She dove from the trees and landed between Gilbert and the Mystic, disorientating the latter. ‘Greta!’ said Gilbert, ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Gideon woke me up,’ she said, ‘he actually noticed you weren’t there. I tried to find another portal, just so I can see you weren’t trying to abandon us.’ She paused, taking a look at the mushroom in Gilbert’s claws. ‘I saw you fighting the Mystic.’
‘I had to fight him,’ said Gilbert, ‘He was talking about how he wants to kill them humans! And I couldn’t have him hurt the friends I made here!’
‘Greta,’ said the Mystic, ‘isn’t that what you want? To see the humans wiped out?’
Greta’s only response to that was a grimace.
‘They’ve hunted us, they’ve mistreated us, I mean, you’ve fought against them.’
‘That’s because sometimes when you want peace, you need war,’ said Greta sternly, before turning to her brother, ‘I must admit, Gilbert, that was impressive.’
‘And I owe it to this beauty,’ said Gilbert, lifting the mushroom.
‘That’s what made your neck stretch?’ asked Greta.
‘Oh yes, and there’s more where that came from. Fact, there’s a cake that can make your whole body big.’
‘Maybe this world isn’t as bad as I thought,’ said Greta, looking around, ‘I’m sure the other gryphons could find use for those things, maybe you should bring them back to the village.’
‘I intend to,’ replied Gilbert, ‘and maybe even the things of this here world, we can use them as peace offerings for the humans.’
Greta rubbed her chin in thought. ‘I suppose it’s worth a try.’
The Mystic got back up, only to be pushed aside by Gilbert, who snatched back the bell. ‘Now don’t you try any more business,’ said Gilbert to the Mystic, ‘or I’ll take you to my employer here.’
When they managed to restrain the Mystic, Gilbert, Greta and the Turtle collected some mushrooms, with Gilbert even going off and getting a bottle of “Drink Me” and a box of “Eat Me”. They would return to Aquilabestia, and Gilbert would stay there and help his kind, but he knew that he would always be The Gryphon.