Before Alice could ask their destination, Totoran began transitioning, she follow suit, shrugging and stretching into her Griffian form. Leaping from the bedroom window both winged forms soared into the early evening sky. Alice flew to one side of Totoran making note of their route over the forest and towards the mountains. The air began to cool the closer they got to the snowcapped peaks. Totoran turned to face her regularly encouraging her with a smile but she could see his concern. Flight was a nighttime activity normally to prevent discovery by low flying aircraft or hikers with binoculars. Alice viewed the terrain below as the trees gave way to rocky outcrops. She looked up just in time to see Totoran deftly change direction and dive sharply to the right. In her haste, Alice swiveled too quickly and plunged a few hundred feet before regaining her flight. Totoran was far ahead of her and she called out.
“Totoran, please, wait for me!”
With expert ease, he swung around and hovered in place, smiling at her plea. Alice caught up to him and thanked him for waiting.
“We have another thirty minutes flight, are you okay? Do you need to rest?”
“No let’s keep flying, I’m all right.”
Alice was tired and her wings ached deep into her shoulders but she knew if she stopped now it would be harder to start flying again. She flapped hard then glided to ease the pain as it continued to radiate through her back. She wondered if she should ask to stop but Totoran signaled and pointed to a massive rock formation projecting from the side of a grey, mist covered mountain. Alice followed Totoran’s movements exactly as he twisted and turned through overhangs and narrow fissures in the rocks.
“We need to hover and descend slowly, Alice. You have done well mimicking my movements until now. Stay focused and copy me.”
Alice spread her wings fully and hovered to one side of her guide. Gradually, a formation of carved rock faces came into view. Alice saw balconies, windows and doorways. Cloaked figures walked narrow paths carved into the rock faces. Totoran landed on a ledge and waited for Alice. She landed beside him.
“We are home, our ancestral home and the place you and all of our kind are safe.”
Totoran turned and walked toward a large entranceway. Alice noticed passing Griffian’s bowed their heads at him but dismissed her without a second glance. The doors at the entrance opened slowly as they approached by two menacing Griffians holding long jagged edged swords. Alice quickened her pace to walk in Totoran’s shadow and kept her head low. The interior was a vast cavern with thousands of tool marks on the stone from the floor to ceiling. There were tables fashioned from solid blocks of rock and ornate chairs carved from quartz. With no natural light the cavern’s gloom was illuminated with hundreds of candles. Wax dripped into containers set below them. They must reuse it, Alice thought. She turned to Totoran to ask how long he had lived in the cavern but while she’d inspected the rock room, he’d walked out of sight.
Unsure what to do and afraid to approach the large guards at the door, she stood still hoping Totoran returned quickly.
“May I help you?”
A small voice made Alice jump. An old woman with black eyes and teeth grinned at Alice. Alice kept her manners and did not grimace at the rotting teeth but answered as sweetly as she could.
“I seem to have lost my guide. His name is Totoran. Have you seen him? Do you know which way he went?”
“You mean the Prince?”
“Oh no, not a prince. I mean Totoran. He guided me here.”
“My young one, you are quite innocent. Totoran is the Prince of the Griffians and one day he will become King. He probably went into the Staterooms to speak with his father. Best you sit here for a while. I can bring you refreshments.”
“Totoran is really the prince? Oh my, how stupid of me. I will stay here and wait for him. I am quite thirsty and hungry, if I may have something. Thank you.”
The old woman shuffled away. When she was out of sight, Alice wondered what she would bring back. She didn’t have to wait long. With her arrival heralded by soft scuffing on the stone floor, the withered faced woman brought back a wooden dish full of thinly sliced raw meat.
“This will satisfy your hunger.”
When Alice’s nose creased and her mouth grimaced, the woman chuckled softly.
“Not fully developed then, are we? No matter I have something you will find more palatable.”
Alice sighed in relief as the dish was discarded on the table. The replacement dish was indeed more to Alice’s liking, cooked meat paddy and a large juicy tomato.
“Thank you. I’m sorry I didn’t get your name. I’m Alice.”
“I am called Wrightsen, if you need anything else just call. I have duties to see to.”
“Will I be allowed to stay here?”
“Of course but do not wander along the corridors unless escorted. Parts of the caverns are not for novices.”
Alice watched fascinated by the many Griffians walking through the grand hall. She could tell the ages of the ones in human form, but the others in full transition were less obvious in their age. She gradually realized she was a curiosity in the community as an increasing number of visitors either walked from one side of the hall to the other or merely peered at her from numerous vantage points. Alice began to feel self-conscious but had no option but to sit and wait.
“Alice, come we will find you quarters.”
Totoran’s voice was a welcome one. Alice let out a sigh and turned to face him but could not help let out a gasp at his magnificent robes.
“Please do not let my appearance intimidate you, Alice. My father expects me to dress properly when at home.”
Totoran leaned towards her and whispered.
“I’d rather be out flying and free of these heavy robes to be honest. Come I will show you to your room. Then we can explore.”
“Alice stayed close to Totoran as they walked along several corridors. Eyes glanced at her from the many bowed heads as they passed Griffians going about their daily tasks. She was amazed at the scale of the palace.
“How long did it take to dig all of this out of the mountain, Totoran? We seem to have walked for a long time.”
“The first visitors manipulated an original cave in the mountain but it has taken a thousand generations to carve out the palace and surrounding dwellings to today’s magnificent state. We still carve out new areas every year to accommodate newcomers, repair damaged areas or clear rock falls.”
“You must have some powerful machinery to do all this.”
Alice was surprised at Totoran’s laughter. What did I say that was funny?
“I apologize, Alice the thought of any machinery being capable of this kind of endeavor is funny.”
“Well, I know they use explosives and massive rock crushing machines to drive through railway tunnels. I thought you would have something similar.”
“Well, yes that is true but the human’s methods are crude and more destructive than need be. Their explosions cause stress to the integrity of the rock and cracks inevitably result leaving unstable areas. We do not endanger lives with such methods.”
“So what do you use then?”
“We have miners who did the rock.”
“Well I gathered that but what tools do they use?”
Totoran turned to her as if to speak but instead took hold of her arm and guided her into a less imposing corridor. The light was dim and Alice was glad of Totoran’s hand. As they turned a corner the previous dull sound of pounding became deafening. Alice covered her ears. Totoran pointed ahead and downward. Alice followed the direction of his finger. Before her in a large cavern were huge beasts with large crab-like claws digging into the rock as though it was butter. Huge wooden carts on tracks stood behind them gradually filling up as the mining creatures threw boulders over their shoulders into them. Alice stood wide-eyed until Totoran tapped her on the shoulder and motioned for them to leave the way they had come. Once they were far enough away Alice uncovered her ears and spoke to Totoran in awe.
“They made slicing the rock look so easy. That is incredible. Are they Griffian’s like us?”
“Not exactly. They are a mutation of a creature from our own planet especially bred for mining.