Tommy froze. He had never known who had found him. It was the one mystery that had bugged him. Tommy had never thought that it had been Grandi. He had bugged Peri incessantly for information about the Accident for years and Peri had never said a word.
“I keep thinking that maybe she saw something when she found him… something that changed her. That maybe it was something to do with Tommy.”
Tommy’s heart was beating so fast it could have jumped right out of his chest. He couldn’t listen to this anymore. He was divided– the part that wanted to hear what his father thought had happened and the part that wanted to go back upstairs and forget everything.
He heard a banging noise through the back door, like a falling bin being smacked with a cricket bat, and made the decision to run.
The sun was bright and he shaded his eyes with a hand as the door shut, scanning the wrecked yard. He saw the green bin on its side, old grass clippings scattered along the pavement. Trying to shake away the cold that settled over his skin, Tommy turned and saw the cat.
Except it wasn’t a cat. It lay curled up on one of the old banana lounges. Tommy stepped closer as it licked his claws, its tail twitching happily. It was bigger than any house cat he had ever seen. It was the golden colour of autumn leaves with the head of an eagle. The animal’s body looked like one of the young lions he had seen on TV. Its wings were white and tucked behind its back. The lion portion of its body was relaxed in repose. It rather resembled a very small house cat.
It had the head and forelegs of an eagle.
Tommy had seen something like it before, in one of the old fairy tale books his Grandi owned.
It moved and stretched, beak yawning open as cat ears twitched. Tommy watched silently as it squinted up at the sun, blinking one eye then the other. It jumped down and sashayed along the overgrown footpath that led to the gardens.
Tommy stood still, watching the space where it had sat, before scrambling after it.
The lion-eagle-cat was quick, galloping easily down the path. Tommy hurried to keep up. Every time he got too far behind, the creature would stop and sniff around, digging at the ground and chasing after any magpies that were stupid enough to get to close. He had a feeling the cat-bird was doing it deliberately so Tommy could catch up. It wanted Tommy to follow it, probably so that it could eat him like the goblins had wanted to. But he still couldn’t bring himself to turn around and walk back to the house.
They crested over another hill and reached the start of the hedge maze.
Tommy had always wondered which of his ancestors had been dumb enough to plant and grow the stupid thing. The hedge was seven feet tall and ridiculous. It stayed green even in the middle of a legendary Australian heat wave. Tommy had sworn up and down that the maze was magic when he was little, but no one had believed him except Peri. And no one but Peri knew that he had always felt uneasy around the maze.
The lion-bird was waiting patiently at the entrance, licking its clawed paws. When it heard Tommy approaching, it looked up and titled its head to one side and gave him a very dirty looking glower. Tommy imagined it saying, what took you so long stupid? I don’t have all day.
As he glared back, Tommy noticed something in the creature’s mouth. It was his deflated footy.
“Give it here.”
The winged cat snorted – you wish pathetic human – and with a particularly irritated twitch of its tail, turned and bounded into the maze. Tommy growled and sprinted after it.
Years of running from his brothers and playing Tiggy in the maze had etched a map into his mind that was near-perfect. He knew the maze better than his own face. Tommy skidded around the first bend, catching sight of a bronze tail tuft, and took chase. He caught up to the creature in no time.
With a war cry, Tommy jumped, lunging across the open space and tackling the annoying beast to the ground. Dust exploded around them, creating a cloud that made him sneeze. The cat-bird-lion squirmed about in his arms, making pathetic mewling sounds that fit better with an annoyed kitten.
“Give me back my ball,” growled Tommy, struggling to keep his hold.
With a vicious hiss, the creature released the deflated ball and bit three of Tommy’s fingers. He shouted. The bird-kitty got free and glared at him, huffing in exasperation, before it grinned and picked up the ball again.
Tommy’s eyes widened. “Don’t!”
The creature snarled before jumping through a gap in the hedge. Tommy scrambled up and jumped at it again. He missed the ball but grabbed a handful of its mane.
“Didn’t anyone teach you any manners, boy?”
Tommy gave an un-manly shriek and jumped up, spinning around. He couldn’t see anyone. But what he could see made his blood run cold.
The hedge had grown another seven feet.
Tommy’s eyes widened as he looked up, moving around in a circle. He didn’t recognise anything. The sky looked different. Instead of bright blue it was a sickly grey colour, mottled with bruised purple clouds. The ground beneath his feet was dirt instead of dusty gravel. Fog drifted lazily along the ground and Tommy shivered with the sudden cold.
“Don’t gawk, boy. You look completely undignified.”
Tommy spun around again and came face to face with the griffin.
Not that his recent discovery helped him at all. Tommy was still very much confused.
“Did you just…”
The griffin sneezed. “Of course. You don’t see anyone else here, do you?” The griffin shook out his mane and shifted in his spot. “I am Baanti.”
“You’re a griffin.”
“Did you work that out all by your lonesome? I swear that you Outsiders are getting stupider every century.”
“I’m not stupid,” said Tommy. “I just always thought griffins were bigger.”
"Size is not indicative of importance!" Baanti crawled up onto the back of a very old stone bench and glared at Tommy. "Look at you! Oh yes.” The small griffin smirked, settling into a Sphinx like posture to stare intently at him. “Don't think I don't know who you are. You used to be a rather small, whiny little thing, didn't you? Not surprised that you forgot me. Mortals have such fickle memories.”
Baanti shivered, sending a few hairs flying into the air. “Of course that would be the part you pay attention to.”
“Which part am I supposed to pay attention to, then? The part where you insulted me? The part where you know who I am? Because I already figured that out, thanks. I’m sure that I used to play with you as a kid. I always just thought you were my imaginary friend. Then again, I’ve seen strange things for as long as I can remember, so what’s one more?”
Talking to Baanti had rustled memories Tommy hadn’t even realised he had.
He remembered a big red ball and a river. He remembered the griffin who’d become his best friend. He remembered scratching behind Baanti’s ears as he purred; talking to him and telling all the stories his Grandi told him every night. He remembered a black tree, burned to nothing, and three-eyed ravens sitting on its branches, singing to him in a strange, haunting language… Tommy cried out, falling to his knees as a wall slammed up in his mind, blocking the pool of memories from him.
Baanti looked startled, jumping down from his perch to land in front of him. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Baanti’s mane rubbed against Tommy’s hand.
Tommy was bent over on his knees, one of his hands buried into the ground while the other held the side of his face. Black spots danced in his vision.
“Stay here. I’m going to get help.”
His left hand, pressed into the cool dirt, had started to burn again. He brought it up to his face and saw blood leaking through the bandages his mother had tied around the scar. He winced as drums started beating in his head.
Tommy lost track of time. Eventually the pain in his head faded to a dull throbbing, and the pain in his hand stopped completely. When he felt better, he spent a few moments getting his bearings back before standing. He was shaky on his feet, but Tommy managed to start walking in the direction he thought was north. His knee stung and looking down, he winced at the sight of rip that had torn through his jeans. His mum would kill him.
First he had snuck out after Grandi had told him not to, then he had gone and destroyed his clothes. He gulped. Grandi. Tommy wasn’t sure who he was more afraid of; his mother or his grandmother.
The hedge rustled in a chilly breeze and Tommy heard the squawking of birds. A branch cracked behind him and he spun around, seeing nothing but hedge.
His stomach growled and Tommy groaned alongside it in a harmony of hunger. How long had it been since he had eaten? He wasn’t wearing a watch and he didn’t have anything to tell the time with, but he was pretty sure that it was close to dinner. Not that he would be getting any; Grandi had been pretty clear about it. If she discovered he was gone, he wouldn’t be eating ever again. The thought made his stomach scream.
A bird dive-bombed him, shrieking unhappily. Tommy shook it off. It looked like a magpie, just a few sizes bigger and meaner-looking. Its beady black eyes watched him, its white and black wings twitching in preparation. Tommy gnashed his teeth and growled threateningly. The bird startled, squawking shrilly, and flew away.
Grinning, Tommy turned. Then he froze. The magpie sat calmly on a thorny branch, completely unperturbed, with five other massive birds in a nice little row. Tommy had never seen birds so big. They were about the length of his arm, with long, sharp beaks tipped with red.
He gulped, bending down slowly to pick up a nearby stick. Rising to his feet slowly again, he waited. He desperately tried to remember the survival courses his Dad had forced on him as a kid.
The biggest bird cocked its head and snarled, showing a line of needle thin and very sharp teeth. Its beak twisted morbidly and it smiled at him. Tommy froze, the stick in his hand suddenly heavy, as the bird stretched its winged-arms. Feathers sprouted from the arm, forming what he had first thought had been its wings. It gnashed its teeth and crowed at its compatriots. One of the smaller birds attacked.
Tommy swiped at it with his stick, missing completely, and the bird flew back up high, watching him like how he expected the hawk watched the rabbit. It dive bombed, coming in as quickly as a sparrow. Tommy waved his stick around like a lunatic, hoping to distract the bird and make it think twice about possible eating him.
Another bird took to the air and circled around his head, flapping its wings in an imposing manner. It dived, pulling out just before Tommy’s stick could make contact with its body. The two birds shrieked at him, the sound like cackling witches, then both went for a dive at the same time.
Tommy prepared. Then a dirty big rock smacked into the bird on the left.
The other bird freaked out, fluttering its arms and ruffling its feathers. The other birds copied. The leader bird tried to get them back into order, but it was useless.
Another two rocks went flying through the air, connecting with the same bird and sending it cartwheeling into the hedge. They screamed and flew away. The lead bird hesitated, looking between Tommy and his stick as if the bird blamed him for the rocks. Another rock whizzed by Tommy’s ear and hit the hedge behind the bird and it jumped, flying after its friends.
Tommy spun around; brandishing his stick in what he hoped was a threatening manner. A boy, about fifteen, bounced up and down happily, a slingshot held in one hand loosely.
The first thing Tommy noticed about him was the top hat. It was crushed and battered, frayed around the edges. He wore a patched navy blue coat that should have been the right size, but because of his skinniness, was far too big. A similar coloured waist coat was done up over a white shirt. Large goggles hung around his neck. A scarf was tied across his nose and mouth, covering the bottom half of his face.
“Did you see that, Blue?” the boy asked, pulling down his scarf and revealing a pointed, grinning face.
“So sorry, Red, but I was too busy saving a child’s life,” a second voice spoke from the shadows as another boy stepped forward. He looked almost identical to the first, except that his coat and waist coat were a dark burgundy colour. He didn’t have a top hat, but wore something that reminded Tommy of a baggy green.
“You have got to be joking,” the first boy – who Tommy guessed was the one called Red – said, giving his friend a scandalous look.
Tommy heard the boy called Blue scoff, before he pulled down his own scarf. His face was identical, only a little rounder in the cheeks and younger looking.
Tommy blinked. They could have been twins.
“Why would I joke about a thing like that?”
“Gentlemen, please.” Baanti prowled forward, shaking out his golden-yellow coat. The griffin seemed unruffled and unharmed. Tommy didn’t know why that made him so angry. “Whoever got more Mockers is not important.”
“Are you sure about that, Ba?” asked Red, folding his arms over his chest.
“Don’t call me Ba,” snapped Baanti immediately. “My name is Baanti. Bah-ANT-ee.”
Blue said, “Because I’m pretty certain that getting rid of the Mockers trying to peck the Outsiders eyes out –”
“–was pretty important,” Red finished.
Baanti shook his head. “Not important enough to fight over.”
Red grinned – or was it Blue wearing red clothes? – as Blue snorted. “Honestly; you would think that he doesn’t appreciate all the work we do for him.”
“Too right my friend,” the boy dressed in burgundy said. “We didn’t have to put our own lives at risk for a boy we don’t even know.”
“We could have said no when you appeared out of the blue while we were in the middle of a rather important task.”
“And we could have said no when you told us to abandon what we were doing and risk our lives to get Silvertongue out of the lion’s dens.”
“Figuratively speaking, of course; there weren’t any actual lions involved, unlike that place in –”
“– Eastern City.” Top Hat turned to the griffin. “Did you know that, Baanti? Elwyn Alcoran, the spiteful git, uses actual lions as guard dogs.”
“Nasty place, that. Never going back unless someone offers lots of money.”
Baanti looked ready to rip the two boys to scraps. His claws were out, flexing against the dirt and making a mess of what little grass grew.
Tommy watched the strange boys banter back and forth, finishing each other’s sentences and having conversations within conversations. He wondered if that was how he and Peri looked when they got into a discussion. Thinking of Peri made his heart squeeze painfully.
Red, Blue and Baanti turned to Tommy, blinking like they had just remembered his existence. Baanti’s eyes focused on the stick Tommy still held in his hand, while Red and Blue looked at him like a very interesting puzzle.
“Who’s this, then?”
“That would be the boy we saved from certain death.”
“Huh. Skinny bugger, isn’t he?”
“Skinny? He has more meat on his bones then both of us put together.”
“I don’t think that’s right. Wouldn’t he be fat then?”
“Fine. But he’s still skinny and bigger than us.”
“I don’t think he is.”
Blue or Red stepped forward, shoving his hands into his pockets. He walked slouched over, like he spent too long playing video games. Stopping right in front of Tommy, he completely ignored his stick. He reached a hand out and sniffed, measuring his height against Tommy’s.
“Just as I thought. Short.”
“I am not short!” Tommy shouted, gnashing his teeth.
Blue or Red blinked, moving his eyes over Tommy interestedly. “A short spitfire.”
“Good,” said Baanti. “He’ll need it here.”
Tommy scrambled back, eyeing off the boy and griffin. Underneath Red-or-Blue’s cap he caught sight of bright orange hair. Up close his face was covered in soot, with lots of freckles pasted across his nose and cheeks. The boy reached out and grabbed Tommy’s chin.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Tommy demanded, tightening his grip on his stick and jerking away. “Who are you? What do you want? What were those things attacking me back there? Why did they have teeth?” His nose twitched just before he sneezed. “And why are you covered in dust?”
“Excellent questions, them.”
“Bit hard to answer them all at once,” the other boy continued, resting an elbow on his brother’s shoulder. He had bright orange hair as well, and just as many freckles.
“Especially since we don’t know how much you know.”
“Or how much we should be telling you, considering you aren’t from here.” He reached forward, flicking the tassels on Tommy’s hoodie. Tommy grabbed them defensively, before glaring angrily.
“What does that even mean?” snapped Tommy, his frustration and embarrassment getting the best of him.
“Do you have to yell?” Baanti the temperamental griffin snapped, his tail twitching quickly. “I know Tweedledee and Tweedledum are both very annoying and distracting, but that doesn’t mean you have to yell to get attention.”
“Boys.” The fourth voice was low and throaty. It came from the shadows to Tommy’s right and drifted over to him lazily, wrapping around his mind like a soft blanket. It had the same strange accent Blue and Red spoke with. They sounded Australian, just from a different century. “Stop talking right now. It isn’t helping.”
Whatever he had been about to snap at Baanti disappeared on the tip of his tongue. He tried opening his mouth, but couldn’t. The others seemed in the same boat, but instead of looking as confused and outraged as he did, they looked bored and disinterested. Baanti was furious as he pawed at his beak with a clawed foot.
“Why did you want our help, Baanti?”
Baanti’s beak snapped open and he made an indignant squawk. “I have half a mind to come over there and peck out your pretty little eyes, Silvertongue! How dare you! Why, back in the Old Days –”
“Baanti,” the voice sounded exasperated, like his mum’s voice did whenever Lochie and Misha did something especially stupid.
“Fine! I wanted your help because this boy doesn’t deserve to die.”
Red snorted (Tommy was positive that Red was wearing the navy coat) and shook his head. “So? Lots of people don’t deserve to die. It doesn’t mean we can save every last one of them.”
“Blue has a valid point.” Tommy listened closely. The voice was decidedly female, but a little lower than the voices of all the girls he knew.
His eyes scanned the shadows, searching for the body that went with the voice. A pulse in a nearby shadow gained his attention and he looked closer, narrowing his eyes in concentration. There. The shadow was alive and he caught sight of the flutter of clothing.
“What point might that be?” asked Baanti.
“That everyone has to die at some point. It’s inevitable,” the shadow said.
“But this boy is not supposed to die now.”
“How do you figure that?” questioned Red, admiring his dirty fingernails.
Tommy couldn’t believe these people. How could they just stand there and discuss his impending doom in the same way that talked about the weather? What had he stumbled into? Griffins, boys dressed like the steampunk characters from his favourite video game, and women that hid in shadows?
He couldn’t make sense of it.
How had he even ended up in this situation? He had been sneaking out of his bedroom one moment and the next he was in some other dimension, being attacked by mutant carnivorous magpies. With arms.
The strange cut on the palm of his hand was tingling, shivering with excitement and making his skin itch. It had started when he had first chased Baanti and hadn’t stopped since. On top of all that, it was the second time in two days that some creature that shouldn’t have existed had tried to eat him alive.
He tried to take a deep, calming breath, but it only made him angrier. He had asked a question and he still didn’t have an answer. It wasn’t a hard question, either. All he wanted to know was where he was and who they were.
A branch snapped above his head as a bird took flight, its wings beating quickly. A black feather drifted to the ground and landed in his hair. Tommy had the sinking feeling as he picked the feather out that he was being watched.
The boys were still arguing with the griffin.
“Back in my day –”
“Back in your day? Honestly, Baanti, you talk like you were around during the time of the Big Three.”
“Blue, leave it. You ain’t gonna talk sense into him if Silvertongue can’t.”
“Come on, Red.”
Tommy had had enough. “Excuse me!” This mum had ingrained proper manners into him as soon as Tommy could speak.
Baanti looked up at him in annoyance; giving Tommy the same look his grandmother used whenever she thought his manners were at the same level as a baby piglets. Blue and Red were standing with their arms crossed over their chests, looking like the same person reflected in a mirror. Red’s top hat was hanging on a branch behind his head; his floppy orange hair looked like it belonged in Grease.
“I’m tired, I’m hungry and I’m lost. I’m this close to using this stick as a weapon, and I want to go home. Who are you people? Where am I?”
Baanti blinked slowly, but didn’t answer. Turning his tail on Tommy and faced the woman in the shadow. “Well?”
He heard a sigh just as the shadows shifted, the woman stepping forward. Tommy blinked in disappointment. She was wearing a long, dark cloak whose colours seemed to move with the light, adjusting to best camouflage her. It pooled around her feet, hanging around her like a dress and hiding everything from sight. The hood of her cloak reminded Tommy of a beak, and all he could see was her mouth and pale chin.
“You are in Inside and…” the woman stopped midsentence, her whole body seeming to freeze. Tommy shifted his weight to his other foot and ignored the numbing feeling that was spreading through his head.
Something that resembled golden electricity moved along the woman’s body. Tommy jumped back as it sliced out toward him. It was gone before he could have another look.
“And nothing. You do not belong here, so you do not need to know anymore then what I am about to tell you.”
Off to the side, Blue and Red stood up, standing at attention like soldiers in an army. Red pulled his top hat back on; Blue’s hand dropped to his hip. Tommy caught sight of silver and realised that he was reaching for a dagger.
“The creatures you just saw do not exist.” Her voice started changing, taking on the same throaty quality as when she had commanded everyone to stop talking. “You created them and imagined them after reading a book with their descriptions. You snuck out of your house and chased after a fat house cat, following it into the maze. This has all been a dream.”
His eyes felt heavy, his whole body exhausted. A fog was drifting into his mind and covering everything, every memory of the last couple of hours. The woman’s voice was soothing; Solar Caine applied to painful sunburn.
This has all been a nightmare, just like the ones I used to have five years ago. It’s just a dream…
The fog was moving quickly and no matter how hard Tommy struggled against it, it got inside. This woman called Silvertongue was doing something to his mind. Controlling and manipulating it. Everything she said was sinking into his skin and bones, falling into his blood, travelling all throughout his body.
“Stop it,” he gasped, falling to his knees as his head pounded. He covered his ears to try and block her voice out, panting heavily. “Stop it! Leave me alone!”
Through the sensitive skin of his ear, he felt his palm heat up. Something inside him moved, coming to life in a brilliant show of fire and ice. He felt energy surge, flowing alongside his blood and moving around his whole body.
“Get out of my head,” whispered Tommy. He had wanted to yell, but it was too hard.
Above, the strange clouds churned and lightning illuminated the sky in quick blue flashes. The woman stumbled backwards. Blue and Red lurched forward as if to catch her, but she flung out a pale white arm and grabbed a handful of vines. Tommy’s vision was swimming, but he caught sight of black ink writing along the inner flesh of her arm. A tattoo.
When he heard her voice again, it reverberated through his skull, rocking his mind with a thunderous boom; “You see nothing but Outside.”