The Griffin awoke. How long he had slept, he could not say. It felt somewhat like days, but mostly it felt like complete ignorance of the time. He was in Isaiah's room, curled up on the floor, too large for the bed. A great deal had gone on while he slept, the Griffin was sure. Dimly, he remembered voices and cries, perhaps even attempts to wake him. And he remembered working, in his sleep, very hard. What he worked at, he could not say.
There was a trouble in the back of his mind, a loss, but he kept it carefully at bay. He would think of nothing but the moment, the immediate.
Isaiah's room was too small. He would get out. He reared up and pawed the door open, then padded down the corridor, looking for a place big enough to spread his wings. He headed for the lounge, but stopped when one of his drifting eyes spotted light behind him. Turning, he saw that it flooded in through the main hatch. The ship was down, landed somewhere, with daylight streaming in. The Griffin poke d his beak out and sent eyes swirling into the new light.
They were on a desert. Mountains and mesas rose in the distance. Dry, cracked earth lay beneath. The light was reddish, like sunset light, but shone down from somewhere near the zenith, from a vast, red solar disc. The Griffin's eyes noted sunspots on it, and prominences frilling the edge. A warm breeze blew in.
Ignoring the ladder, the Griffin leapt out and landed with a cushioning flap of wings, took a few paces, started to run, flapped in earnest, and took off.
Exultant, he spiraled up, seeing how close he could get to that baking, ruddy disc, basking in the warmth, filling his many eyes with the red-orange glow, the pale, dim blue of the sky around it. The sun grew no closer and a voice in his mind murmured, "Of course not." The sun was millions of kilometers away, far above the air.
Though, he reflected, this particular sun was probably not as distant as the others he had seen. That was why it looked so big. And, from the color, it must be a red dwarf. Probably this was a oneface world, orbiting too close to resist the tidal forces that killed rotation and nailed the sun to a fixed place in the sky forever. And, since the sun was so high, they must be very near the subsolar point, the center of the sunward hemisphere. He wondered what planet this was.
And then wondered at his own thoughts. They seemed to lead somewhere else, to that woe at the back of his mind. Then he remembered: remembered that he was a monster, that he had been Isaiah, but now was– No. Dammit, no, he was still Isaiah. Who was human. And feared heights.
He looked down. The landscape was wrinkled stone. The ship was too small to spot readily. His cloud of eyes closed. Surely the terror would start. But it did not.
A new terror took its place. He was not feeling like Isaiah, or thinking like him, or, certainly, looking like him. The old identity must be gone, then. Isaiah was gone, leaving only a fabulous beast in his place.
His exultant mood had vanished entirely, replaced by confusion and bitter loneliness. Isaiah was gone, a casualty of a feud played with magic. Now all that was left was for the monstrous remains to fly away. He flew.
Some time later, weariness began to drain him. He could not fly forever, he suddenly thought. And where to? "Fly away." Where's "away"?
Never mind. It was time to land. He started spiraling down, looking for someplace flat. But he was a long way up and his fatigue was growing quickly. He forgot his sorrows in a new fear: he might reach exhaustion before he reached the ground. What then? Would he realize Isaiah's old fear and die by falling?
To save time and energy, he folded his wings and dove. A few seconds later, the speed of the air through his feathers worried him. He spread his wings again.
The air hit them like hammers. Pain from the new shoulder joints pierced him. No, he could not dive down. Back to spiraling.
But the ground approached too slowly. He panted. His vision swam, and, distantly, he noticed that his many new eyes had closed and gone. He closed his last two and went on descending.
Minutes later, he opened them again, but the ground was still hundreds of meters below. Something inside was giving out. He willed his wings to stay spread. They did, but somehow, the air began sliding past them, through them, faster and faster. His whole body felt wobbly.
There was a flicker of blackness, a brush with unconsciousness. He woke from the wind howling in his face. He flailed his arms, clutching the air with useless fingers. He tumbled, and glimpsed something golden above him. A scrap of cloud in the unchanging sunset-light?
No. Suddenly, the wisp of gold gained size and solidity. It was the Griffin, falling toward him, stooping on him falcon-wise. It would strike–
There was a flash of gold. He spread his wings, braced for the jerk of air pressure. It was not so bad this time. The experiment taught him to keep them half-furled. Grimly, feeling some hidden fuel burning out of him, he rode the air at, perhaps, half his terminal velocity. His mind held nothing but the task at hand. It dared nothing else. Any wavering in concentration would mean... He spared no thought for what it would mean.
There was a mesa. Good enough, and nearer than the ground. Slowly, he spread his wings wider and wider, braking. A few dozen meters above the mesa, he began flapping, trying to lose the last few measures of speed. Slower. Slower. Yes! He would live!
The relief broke his concentration. He tumbled out of the air, skinned hands, knees, shoulder, cheek, on the rock. His head ached as if stabbed. He blacked out.
*******Isaiah looked about. This was his first lucid moment in ... How long? Was it a lucid moment yet? He remembered delirious dreams, if they were not experiences – dreams of flight over desert.
He sat up. He was on sun-baked rock, beneath an oven-red sun. On a mesa. Naked, skinned up, and bruised. Those had not been dreams. They had been real, though they had also been nightmares.
The worst of the nightmares were touch. Not what he touched, but what he touched with. The words "proprioception" and "body image" flitted through his mind. How completely unimaginable was a transformation, until it happened to you. How unexpected and unexpectable was the feel of six limbs, a tail, movable ears.
He groaned. He should not have dwelled on the memories; they were becoming real again. He stared at his forearm as it grew furry and the fingers were lost in the puffing pads of a forefoot. He could feet the wings lifting off his back, the tail sprouting and switching. Everything appeared to shrink, and he knew his eyes were moving further apart. His teeth were gone; his tongue flickered in a beak. He tried to groan again, but roared. There was a metallic rasp to it, like a basso hawk-scream.
"What am I?" he muttered. (In the back of his mind, he was surprised to find he could speak, though the voice was utterly strange.) He was a griffin, of course. That fleeting impression of fading humanity must have been one more nightmare. Eagle-eyed, he gazed at the vastness around him and screamed from a loneliness no distance could inflict. He was a fabulous monster, a myth, a fiction. He had no kind, no race, no kindred.
A new layer of nightmare bubbled up: if he was no longer human, was he cast out of salvation? If he was no longer any child of Adam's, disowned, could he be any child of the Second Adam? And then where would he find his doom? He screamed again, his loneliness flaming to terror-pitch.
Stars hung moveless in the ever-evening sky. For centuries, he had seen their beauty as supernal art, reflecting and communicating the glory that had fashioned and loved him, too. But now, was he even a creature of that Creator?
The stars swam. They swung about him, not rising or setting, but drifting like silver motes in turbulent water. Soon, he saw that they spun in huge circles, and surely there were more of them now. With terror, he saw they were eyes, wheeling clouds of eyes.
And then, in shock that still had nothing of surprise in it, he saw the Four Lives, the Four Before the Throne, appearing each in its wheel of eyes. Titanic, they leaned over the horizon as over the edge of a table, Man, Bull, Lion, and Eagle. The Man and Bull spared him only a glance, then looked away and vanished. But the Lion and the Eagle stared and stared, with the eyes of their faces and with the wheeling clouds of eyes about them. His own cloud of eyes opened and stared back, but so rapt was he in his delirium or vision, he hardly noticed the multiplying viewpoints.
It came to him that there was something severe in that innumerable gaze, something reproving. Do not be foolish, he nearly heard, clearly understood the Lion say. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things future, nor height, nor depth shall be able to separate us from the love of God.
What is a little transformation or enchantment, then? the Eagle asked. The blood of Adam is not so easily drained. And the blood of Christ is not so easily washed away.
Vision or delirium, they were gone. The stars swam back to their places, and his beak struck the stone.
He woke, perhaps just a moment later, to a feverish clarity. "Of course. Of course. If computers and talking cats are my brothers in Christ, why should I fear to be a griffin?"
"Up, lazy thing!" He looked around. (His disembodied eyes had closed again.) Next to him stood stout battleaxe of a woman, dressed in a stiff gown of red, black, white, and yellow. She wore a crown and carried a scepter tipped with a heart.
"This is a delirium," he told her. "The Queen of Hearts to the Gryphon, from Alice in Wonderland. I recognize the Tenniel wood-cut."
"Up, lazy thing!" the Queen repeated. "This young lady wants to hear your history."
"Gryphon to the Mock Turtle," he muttered. The Queen vanished and in the same moment he felt the touch of Jeanette's mind on his own. "So you're the young lady who wants to know my history," he verbalized.
"?" she puzzled back. He felt her glance quickly at his most recent memory and emote comprehension. "How are you?" she asked.
"Sane. At the moment. I think I can learn to stay sane. A perfectly sane fabulous beast." Some emotion rose up in his heart and throat. He watched it anxiously. No madness threatened, but his eagle-eyes stung with tears. He changed the subject. "It's odd, you know, but there's a kind of choking quality to your contact this time. I suppose it's my condition that–" He broke off. She was embarrassed, angry, with a confused resentment she finally aimed at the neb-runners and dismissed.
"It's not your condition, it's mine."
"I don't understand."
"Never mind for now. I just wanted to know you were safe. Can you feel the direction I'm sending from?"
The Griffin turned its head around. Eyes opened in the air, wheeled. Quickly, the beak and the cloud of eyes pointed back along his flight-path. "Yes."
"When you can, come back to me. But you need rest, now. Just go to sleep, if you can."
Feathers rutched up along his neck. "Your contact– It's almost painful. What–?"
"Rest. Sleep. Then come back to me. Oh, come back!" All haste, she broke the contact. Her vanishing affect had been full of shame and frustration. Instinctively, the Griffin started to reach out to his troubled love, but stopped. She did not want contact.
"But she wants me to come back," he told himself firmly. "She still wants me." And, pushing away the minor problem of his transformation, he lay down in the unmoving sun and slept, his beak pointing back toward Jeanette.
Some hours later, the Griffin came gliding down out of the sky and landed by the Will o' the Wisp with only a slight stumble. Soon, he reflected, he would be able to take off and land as if he'd been doing it all his life.
A group of people waited for him in the ship's shadow: Jeanette, Borne, Vivian, Canorus, and Daima. They stared in amazement at the mythical beast. The Griffin approached, his head hanging and his ears down, embarrassed to be seen in this bizarre shape.
"Isaiah?" Borne asked.
"Uh, yes," the Griffin answered, a little doubtfully. They started slightly at the sound of his deep, brassy new voice. Canorus and Vivian stared at the floating eyes that opened in the air around them.
For his part, the Griffin saw they were all weary, rumpled, and strained. Even Daima looked exhausted, though, as usual, her emotions were unreadable. "What happened?" he asked. "What's happened to me?" The question was a metallic wail.
"Oh!" Jeanette exclaimed, as if she had just remembered something. "Isaiah, lie down, flat on the ground." She raised her hands, in which she held the psi conditioner. Puzzled, he obeyed. Some of his eyes were looking over her shoulder and saw that she had the psi conditioner set to wide-range psilence. She pressed a button–
–and Isaiah dropped a few centimeters onto the dirt. Eyes, wings, tail, all traces of griffinhood were gone. He lay on the baked soil, naked, abraded, and very confused. He lifted his head and stared at his friends for a few seconds. "What–?" he began again.
"We were cursed," Jeanette told him.
"Ah," he said, as if she had actually explained something. "How?" He started to get up, remembered he was n aked, started to lie back down again, then decided this was silly, and got up anyway.
"Telepathic assault," Jeanette answered. "Um. Let's go inside. You can put something on."
A few minutes later, clothed, still human, and still solidly psilenced, Isaiah sat in the lounge with his shipmates, listening to Jeanette. "Remember when this woman appeared and threw globs of snot at us?"
"That was all ectoplasm. The woman was the Integral. What we saw was her astral projection – a secondary body made of ectoplasm. Those globs were more ectoplasm with patterned telepathy bound in them. The patterns made us–"
"Excuse me," Isaiah interrupted. "How did she get her projection on board? Isn't that kind of TK? And don't you have to be within sense-shot to use TK?"
"A very good psychic can use clairvoyance instead of normal senses. And she had a little help. Remember that they shot at us with a projectile just before she appeared. Turns out it was a special projectile, a wad of vacuum putty with a tracer on it." A tracer was a residual clairvoyant contact.
"So they shot the putty at us to stick the tracer on our ship," Isaiah deduced. "And the Integral used the tracer to project herself onto our bridge and throw astral snot at us."
"Yes," Jeanette said.
"And the snot had telepathic patterns stored in it. How did those curse us, exactly?"
"They planted hypnotic suggestions, rather the way Vivian did to you back on Carmel. Each of us came down with a different psychic disease."
"Ah. Like the Case of the Green Glamourist? When FX broke out in poltergeists and turned things green involuntarily?"
"Yes. In fact, Borne has a case of poltergeists right now. Remember how everything was flying around the bridge?" Isaiah nodded. "We're keeping it under control with psilence, right now. Since he's a TK piercer, he can still use his TK through the psilence, but it seems to stop the poltergeists. Which is clinically interesting."
"What psychic disease do I have?"
Isaiah s hifted unhappily in his seat. "I'm a were-beast, you mean."
"Well, yes. That's done with ectoplasm, too. Your griffin shape is an envelope of psychically bound air around your real body."
"And the only thing keeping me human is this psilence?"
"You are human, Isaiah, whether you wear that griffin shape or not. But, yes, without the psilencer, you'd involuntarily turn back, under the hypnotic suggestion."
"This telepathic hypnosis seems to have done a lot more than suggest. It must have taught me how to transform, too."
"Yes. And the same for the rest of us."
"Why didn't we think of psilence earlier?" he wondered aloud. "No, wait, that must have been another suggestion." Jeanette nodded. "What diseases do the rest of us have?"
"I have involuntary burning. Whenever I use telepathy, I start burning the other mind. Even psilence just slows it down, in my case.
"Vivian has vampirism. That's what it's called. It's a psychic vampirism, though, not blood-drinking. If she touches anyone, physically or with her aura, she starts draining free icons out of them."
"I remember when she touched me, right after I turned. I shrank."
"Yes. You couldn't keep up as much ectoplasm. I used her to turn off Borne and Canorus."
"What's Canorus's disease?"
"He has a familiar. It's a little like poltergeists. It's a secondary personality that manifests psychically. In his case, it runs amok with his psi-coding. Or she runs amok. I've seen her laughing out of screens at us – a Melior woman. Her name is Nettle."
"Hm. It seems to me that a familiar could be an asset, rather than a disease, if it could be tamed."
"Yes. So could the ability to turn into a griffin. Or improved burning power. Or vampirism. Or even poltergeists. If they could be controlled."
Isaiah grunted. "Yeah. If."
Jeanette looked at him anxiously. "Well, why not? You had no trouble throwing off the memory block that Vivian put on you. This should be even easier; the lack of control is even less in accord with your character than the memory block was."
Isaiah stared at the deck and scowled.
"What's the matter?"
He shrugged irritably. "I... don't know. It seems so hopeless. You haven't been able to stop burning, have you?"
"No, but I'm not much of a patharch. We were counting on you to un-hypnotize us."
"Oh!" Isaiah looked stricken.
"What is the matter?" Jeanette demanded.
"I just don't– I don't know if I can. I– I think I've lost my patharchy."
"What? Why? How can you lose it?"
"I ... don't ... know." Isaiah shook his head, bewildered. "Well, finish the tally. What about Daima and FX?"
"Daima had a doppleganger."
"A double? How does that–? No, wait, let me guess. More ectoplasm."
"Right. Doppleganger, therianthropy, and astral projection are all variations on the same theme. So's familiar, usually, though this Nettle creature seems to stick to video appearances."
"So we have duplicate Daimas now?"
"Ah... not quite. The doppleganger looks like the original Daima. Gray fur and so on. Also, it was ... belligerent. It attacked Daima as soon it appeared. She beat it off and it vanished, but it came back four times during the trip to Aten. Viv and I took to guarding Daima. On the repeat attacks, I burned it once, Viv drained it twice, and once we ganged up on it together. Daima was in there pitching each time."
"I don't envy this doppleganger," said Isaiah.
"Thanks, but it has the tactical advantage of existing only when it wants to. And it's fresh every time it comes back. It was wearing Daima down. She's only had a chance to recover since we put her back in psilence."
"Ah, yes. How did that happen, with everyone under hypnotic suggestion not to think of it?"
"Wisper thought of it. Once it had some breathing space. We spent days fighting our curses, most of the way to Aten. And that meant Canorus and Wisper spent days un-crashing systems that Nettle brought down. Twice, she tried to open the airlocks on us. Once, we had to turn off the gravity to keep her from pounding us to death. Wisper had its metaphorical hands full. Finally, Viv got fed up with Nettle and shut her off by draining Canorus dry. He fainted again. But while he was out, Wisper got everything back on line and then suggested we use psilencers. That's when I realized we were under hypnotic suggestion. After that, I started to figure out what happened to us. On the whole," she finished, "you were well off, hibernating in your room."
"I was well out of the way, too," Isaiah said. "You didn't need a were-griffin flapping around the ship."
"I suppose not. I sure missed you, though." She reached out and clasped his hand. "Two or three times a day, we looked in on you, but we couldn't wake you. When you did wake, it was when all the rest of us were sleeping off exhaustion."
"One more question: Why are we parked out here in the desert? Aten has a perfectly good spaceport."
"Are we infectious?"
"No, but we could be a damned nuisance. The Aten authorities asked us to stay out here for twenty-four hours, to make sure we didn't develop any other post-hypnotic kinks, like turning off our psilencers and running amok."
Isaiah nodded, leaned back in his chair, and sighed. "Then what?"
"We seek treatment."
Isaiah blinked. "We do?"
She laughed. "Did you think we were incurable?"
"I guess I did. It must have been part of the hypnosis. Good God! What a vile trick! But, after all, FX got over being the Green Glam– Where is FX? What was his curse?"
The laughter faded out of Jeanette's face. "We don't know. We can't find him."
On to Chapter 23, Cures
Back to Chapter 21, Curse
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013