Chapter 8: A Show To Die For
I. Am never. Getting on. A boat. Again.
Alice winced and moaned as consciousness reasserted its claim on her psyche. Every last one of her muscles felt as if they’d been the rope in a particularly vicious game of tug-of-war, stretched and strained to their absolute limit. Her skull throbbed too, a steady beat-beat-beat perfectly matching the drum of her heart. It seemed that everything that could hurt in her body, did. Why did I ever trust that wretched mockery of a sea creature to get us to the Depths safely? she wondered as she waited for the worst of the pain to bugger off. First I have to endure a heart-stopping plunge into frigid waters, then I’m sent scrambling all over the deck firing cannon and dropping charges to ensure we’re not torn to pieces by roaming schools of those bloody Shipwreck Sharks, all while constantly ducking or shouting so that our ‘brave captain’ doesn’t steer us straight into some random rock formation blocking our path – and then, at long last, just when it looks like we’re in the clear, the king of all those sharp-toothed and broken-hulled horrors leaps out of nowhere and smashes us into the seabed, rendering all my hard work for naught! What is it with me and crash landings as of late? It makes me want to cry, it really does. . . .
Except that I'm quite certain the sobbing I currently hear isn't coming from me.
With a soft grunt, Alice managed to open her eyes and lift her head slightly. Cloudy water swirled all around, rendering her surroundings rather murky, but it wasn't difficult to trace the tears to their source. The Mock Turtle sat before a nearby column of rock to her left, surrounded by the shattered remains of the HMS Gryphon and weeping fresh gallons of salt into the sea. Yes, of course you’re fine, Alice thought, throwing the turtle a glare as she struggled to push herself upright. You can take any punishment the world throws at you with little more than a wail. Aren’t I supposed to get a shell of my own when I go underwater? What happened to me being an honorary reptile? “Oooow!” she groaned as she finally regained her feet. “My body aches all over! We submerged too quickly – and you’re to take a class on steering the first chance you get, ‘Admiral!’”
The Mock Turtle didn’t even deign to give her a glance. “Won’t ever get one now,” he sniffled, wiping his face with a flipper as he surveyed the crushed and splintered timbers of his once-proud boat. “My ship’s a wreck – and I am too!”
Alice was tempted to say something about how he was never anything but a wreck, but refrained in favor of making sure she had no broken bones. Wonderland had tried to make up for nearly killing her again with another new dress, she noticed – this one of green and pink fish scales, with dotted stripes running vertically down the sleeves and skirt. They glowed faintly in the dim light, providing a handy lamp of sorts. The neckline was shockingly daring, showing off what little cleavage she had between two seashell-like cups (I'm no mermaid, Wonderland, she mentally grumbled, resisting the urge to cover herself), and she’d also been divested of stockings and boots. But then again, she thought, wiggling her toes in the soft white sand, I probably don’t need them in this particular location. She still had her apron though – shrunken now, and shaped like a scollop, but present. Her necklace was also still round her neck, except fastened with a tie of seaweed instead of silver links. Alice touched the familiar omega, then twisted her head to check on Yves. She found him in the shape of an angler’s skull, complete with bobbing lure. “Well then,” she murmured, playing with the long feeler, “I guess I’m ready for a day at Brighton. All I have to do now is catch the Train.”
She brushed a few stubborn bits of dirt from the symbols of Neptune and Luna embroidered on her gown (Wonderland was remarkably good at picking appropriate symbols for these new shifts), then looked up. Miles of silty midnight-blue sea stretched above her head, obscuring all trace of the sky she’d so adored in Tundraful. For a moment, she wondered how she was breathing so far below the water’s surface – then quickly shoved the thought out of her mind, lest she find herself suddenly dependent on mysterious streams of bubbles and pockets of captured air to live. She’d had enough of nearly drowning doggy-paddling her way through the Wonderland Woods and the Tower of Water last time. If she had to go through this nonsense again, she’d breathe normally and keep her feet on good old terra firma.
The cold currents that had so tormented her before now proved a wondrous salve for her aching joints, and after a mere minute or two of letting herself be rocked by their steady swell, Alice felt ready to walk again. She did a slow circuit of crash site, both to test her legs and better examine her surroundings. They'd landed on one of the scattered chunks of stone and coral uplifted from the sea bed that they'd madly dodged while maneuvering around Shipwreck Sharks and crabs wielding cannon. This one was rather more interesting than its cousins, covered with jagged columns and arches weathered into shape by the relentless motion of the water around them. Chunks of mast, deck, and hull lay scattered all around, the battered wood torn down almost to splinters by the unforgiving rock. Alice winced as she caught sight of what remained of the prow lying helplessly on the sand behind the Mock Turtle. There was something utterly defeated about the wooden face with its upturned eye and open beak – a sense that something truly wondrous might in fact be lost forever. A waste of a good ship, she thought with a sigh. And a most unfitting end for something that commemorated one of my dearest friends. (How could he be dead? He’d once ripped an eye right out of the Jabberwock’s skull – hadn’t he? Ugh, why were all her memories of him so blurry and faded. . . . Could a mere “yes” to one of Bumby’s questions really have felled such a mighty creature?) She glanced over at her still-sniffling comrade. For once, Mock Turtle, you have good reason to weep.
On the other hand, them sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves didn’t actually help their situation. She desperately needed answers, and he was the only creature around who could give them. “I am sorry, but – admirals go down with their ships,” she informed him as she drew near, then furrowed her brow. “Or is it captains. . . .” She shrugged. “In any case, I never knew you for a sailor. If memory serves, you were stationmaster of the Looking-Glass Line.”
Mock sniffled, hmming as he tried to get his tears under control enough to speak. “Sacked from the railroad, without the option,” he finally got out. “‘Redundant,’ the nitwits said.” His ears wiggled with anger as he scrubbed at his face. “Never a holiday! Loyal as a bulldog! ‘Going in a different direction’ my Aunt Fanny – if I had one. Going off the rails more like! Bloody disaster.” He ran a flipper along a dented cannon sitting by his side, as if trying to comfort it. “Now I’m shipless – no place in the world at all. The old railroad’s dead, and this new thing’s a monstrosity.” He glowered out into the dark ocean, looking as furious as something sporting a calf's head could get. “It never runs on time. Engineer’s asleep at the switch. And the fuel–”
The anger abruptly left his face, replaced by fear. “No! What I don’t know about it can’t hurt me!” he cried, waving his flippers wildly like he was trying to banish that gloomy Gnat and his terrible puns. “Say no more! Mum’s the word! Nod’s as good as a wink!”
Alice blinked a few times, startled. What the – what on earth had he been about to say? “Mock?”
Mock shook his head and zipped his flipper across his mouth. Alice huffed and folded her arms across her chest. Well, he’d been kind enough to fill in a few more pieces of the puzzle at least. Hatter’s words about March and Dormy came back to her now: “And then they suddenly came storming in one day talking about ‘new regime’ this and ‘forget the past’ that–” Obviously they’d been the ones to fire Mock after tearing their former friend to pieces. But why? Surely even the Infernal Train needed someone to help run it, and the only other candidate she could think of was lying crushed beneath steel girders. “Please, Mock, I don’t understand. Can't you–”
“Change the subject,” Mock interrupted, shaking his head firmly. “We avoid speaking about the thing whose name should not be spoken.”
That was the most logical thing Alice had ever heard him say, but it irritated her nonetheless. Yet again she was surrounded by creatures who wanted to talk about everything but saving Wonderland. Didn’t anyone besides her actually care about the state of the world? For God's sake, he'd been the one last time to remind her that she was just a visitor – the rest of them had to live here! “Hearing something useful about this new train would make for a change,” she grumbled, letting the sarcasm drip off her words.
Mock turned away from her, fresh tears streaming down his muzzle. “You don’t respect the suffering of others,” he muttered, hat slipping forward to cast his eyes in shadow. “Go ask your questions and smart remarks to Caterpillar! Leave me to my misery.”
Something about the way he looked just then – so downtrodden, so exhausted – made Alice suddenly picture Victor on one of his bad days, slumped in a chair with his eyes on the floor. Guilt settled like a heavy stone in her stomach. This wasn't right. For all his faults – and there were many – Mock was her friend. Victor wouldn’t approve of her treating him so heartlessly. And being nasty hadn’t gotten her anywhere with Hatter either. “I’m sorry, Admiral, really,” she apologized, digging a hole in the sand with her toes. “About your getting sacked, and your ship. I wouldn’t have let them fire you if I’d known. But I must learn more about what’s happening, dangerous as it may be.” She put on her best puppy-dog look, pushing her lower lip out in a pout. “Please – tell me what you know about the train?”
Mock patted his flippers together, reminding her even more of Victor and his fidgety fingers. Damn it, if he kept doing that, she’d want to give him a hug. “I’ll just say we’ve escaped a contaminating corruption,” he said, refusing to meet her eyes. “Count yourself lucky to be down here.”
That was – ominous. But it also wasn’t anything she didn’t already know. She sighed. “But I don’t want to escape – I want to stop it!” she replied, trying to reason with him. “I must stop it to save myself – and Wonderland too. And you can help me, Mock. Just tell me what you know!"
For a moment, his resolve seemed to waver – then he shook his head again. Alice sighed. She really shouldn't have expected anything else. The Mock Turtle had always been a cowardly creature, refusing to meet any danger head-on if he could somehow work around it – or send someone else to deal with it in his stead. Chalk it up to the fact his entire purpose is to end his life in a tureen, I suppose. "Turtle, I've already seen the wretched thing in action. You won't get in trouble for letting me in on your secrets."
“Nonsense!” he declared, his eyes darting all around as if afraid the anemones were eavesdropping on them. “Speak more nonsense. Diversions rule the day! The show must go on, and so on. . . .” He frowned thoughtfully, as if struck by something, and gestured at her with a flipper. “Speaking of shows–”
“We weren’t,” Alice said flatly, hoping to dissuade him from another tangent.
No luck. “Yes, well, never mind – here’s a ticket for the show Carpenter’s mounting,” he continued, pulling an oversized rectangle of white cardboard out from somewhere in his shell. He dropped it in front of her, letting it float in the currents. “Use it.”
Alice took the ticket and examined it. There wasn’t much to it – just “Totentanz” written in fancy silver lettering across the front, with the “o” replaced by the open jaws of a vicious-looking fish, all arching slightly over an omega like the one at her collarbone. Flipping the rectangle over revealed a pattern of black fish scales, with "Dreary Lane Theater" written in blood red ink. Hmmm. Mock had suggested the Carpenter’s realm as the safest place to be at the moment, but. . . . “Is there really time for theater while that Infernal Train–” Mock winced “– sorry – runs wild over Wonderland?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Carpenter says there is. He says that while the Train runs free, the best thing we can do is amuse ourselves and not worry about the past. He’s not likely to say a word about our current conundrums with how busy he is.” Mock glanced around again, then leaned in closer, cupping his mouth. “However, if you run an errand for him – or two – or three. . . .”
Ahhh, this was language Alice understood. “Like when I retrieved your shell from the Duchess?” she smirked, making the Turtle blush. “Well then, I’ll see what he knows. Thank you, Mock.” She looked again at the HMS’s Gryphon’s detached head, resisting the urge to go over and pet it. “And once I’ve managed to stop this ‘contaminating corruption,’ I’ll see what I can do to help you fix your ship.”
Mock blinked, his tears ceasing from sheer surprise. “Really? Your blood has warmed since we last met,” he commented.
“Thank the fact that you remind me quite a bit of another, very dear friend,” Alice said with a smile, patting his flipper. “You stay here – and stay safe, all right?”
“I can do that,” Mock promised, cracking a rare smile. “Good luck with the show.”
Images of oversized steel fists slamming down from the ceiling and boiling pots of lava-hot tea threatening to tip over onto her danced before her eyes. “Thank you,” Alice said with a grimace. “I’ll most likely need it.”
"Now how are you alight underwater?"
The door didn't reply – just continued to crackle away. Alice folded her arms and glared at it. "I suppose I should have expected that you'd make a habit of popping up," she grumbled. "If there's more than one little house, or pair of glasses, or drooping feather, why not more than one scorched front door? And we all know one of Wonderland's favorite activities is tormenting me with memories of the fire."
Still no reply – not that she really expected the knob to sprout a face and start chatting to her. (Although it wouldn't be out of place either. . . .) She sighed and looked around. Nothing else out here but sand and water – and a very high cliff edge. So unless she intended to go back and spend the rest of her life leaping among the jellyfish. . . . "I hope you have something rather more interesting to show me this time," she said, opening the door and stepping inside.
Unfortunately, it seemed it didn't. Once again, she was back in the cluttered, sour-smelling library. She scowled in frustration. "Oh for – we've been over this! Yes, the library was likely to kill us all at one point or another, I bloody get–"
Alice froze for a split second – then her head jerked down. "Dinah!"
It was indeed her old cat, prowling the library for vermin. On automatic, Alice tried to crouch down and stroke her – but her hand passed right through Dinah's dark fur, and the cat continued on oblivious. "Right – memory," she murmured, a little embarrassed. She stood up again, noting that a few other things had changed from her first visit. The room was a little darker this time, Father's things arranged a bit neater, the toys cleaned up, and the fireplace out. Was it night now? Her stomach twisted. Was it the night, in fact? It would only make sense, given how she'd got here –
"Dinah! Here, Dinah!"
The door opened behind her, and Alice turned to see – herself, eight and a half years old, padding across the carpet in her nightgown. "Dinah!" she repeated, unaware of her older self's gaping. How strange to be able to see oneself from the outside like this! But then again, she had a lot of experience at pretending to be two people. . . .
Dinah mowed, trotting over and winding around the younger Alice's legs. "Come on, puss," little Alice said, hoisting the cat into her arms. "I want to stay and play too, but it's time for bed, and your Snowdrop and Kitty are already upstairs. You don't want them to be cold, do you?"
Dinah lightly tapped little Alice's nose with a paw. Little Alice giggled. "Now now, none of that," she mock-scolded. "If you're very good, I'll take you to Wonderland and we'll see if perhaps the Red Queen has some fish for you. As she's your own kitten, she really ought to."
Dinah murred and settled herself against little Alice's shoulder. "Alice!" Lorina's voice came from beyond the door. "It really is time for bed. Is the library fire out?"
"Yes, Mama!" little Alice called, making her way back out into the hall. Alice watched her go. That's right – she remembered now. It had all started out as such a perfectly ordinary night. . . . "I was the last one in the library the night of the fire," she murmured, turning to the fireplace and examining the soot-blackened pile of wood left inside. "The log I added to the grate was dead when I went upstairs to bed with Dinah."
Except. . .she hadn't checked.
Alice's breath caught in her throat. Little Alice hadn't checked – just waltzed right out without a care. She hadn't seen the need – hadn't she doused it quite thoroughly when Mama had called her to come get ready for bed? What was the harm in assuming it was out? And Papa had closed the door without looking either, and. . .and it would so very easy for a small child to miss a stray ember, hidden under in the bark, just waiting its chance. . . . Cold horror gripped her heart. " If it wasn't– " The log suddenly glowed, then flared to new life, flames crackling brightly – and then there was a tinkle of breaking glass, and a line of oil on the floor, allowing the fire access to the paper and smells it so craved " – I may be responsible for my family's deaths! "
"Selfish, misbegotten child! And you dared to tell me you weren't at fault?"
No – no, she could not face him now. Not here. Not like this. Alice turned and bolted for the door as the room was swallowed up first by red, then by black. "Deny the truth all you like! It will not set you free!"
Smoke in her nose, fire in her eyes – and then she was out in the sea again, the door slamming shut behind her. Alice looked out into the dark water above her, sucking in a deep lungful of liquid. She could feel the weight of it pressing her down, fossilizing her in the sand. To fight that bastard twice, only to realize he was right. . . .
"No," she said immediately, shaking her head and sending her hair whipping around her face. "He wasn't right. Even if – even if that log wasn't quite dead, it was an accident. I never meant – No one can blame me for that."
Except yourself, a wicked voice whispered in her brain. Alice shoved it away and started off across the rocks, looking for the right path to this mysterious Carpenter and his show. She had a schedule to keep, after all.
Good thing the water kept anyone from noticing her tears.
"Ah, Alice! Delighted to see you again, my dear. Your arrival is filled with fortunate-ality itself!"
Alice was struck dumb for a moment. The Carpenter was not what she had been expecting. Granted, there were appropriately carpenter-ish things about him – he carried an oversized hammer (though he waved it about like a conductor's baton), he wore a pair of workman’s overalls and an apron (appropriately tattered at the ends by life underwater), and he had long iron nails sticking out of the backs of his hands and punched through his left eyebrow, along with a pencil shoved through the top of one ear (ouch). But if it hadn’t been for those clues, Alice would have never guessed this tall fellow with his arms covered in ink fish skeletons and one leg replaced by a barnacle-encrusted peg had ever worked with wood a day in his life. No solid, steady laborer this – he was theatrical in a way that would put the most over-the-top Punch and Judy show to shame, practically dancing his way across the stage spanning the front of the room. Which she supposed made sense, given they were in a theater, but still. His constant companion the Walrus was at least still recognizably a walrus, even with a tusk missing and that ridiculous little clown’s hat perched atop his blubbery head. The Carpenter was – there were simply no words. He had to be experienced in person. "Really?" she said, finding her voice at last. "I didn't even know–"
"Never mind," Carpenter cut her off, waving his hands before apparently being overcome with the delusion he was a ballerina. "Today is a most frabujous day, my dear! My pregnant show is about to pop!" He dropped to one knee before her, eyes bright. "It requires only a medicament of your helpful-osity."
Oh dear, this was a sight. "I don't have much experience," she giggled. "But I do need to reconstruct – my. . . ."
She trailed off as the Carpenter leaped down from the stage, striking another pose as he swung his hammer mere inches from her head . I do wish he'd be more careful with that – one blow would knock me senseless for a month! "Reconstruct? Well, I was in the business – we can barter!" he offered. "I have a nice screwdriver, nearly new – or a nice hammer," he added, holding up the implement in question, "if you're more interested in – "
"There's a train that's corrupting Wonderland," Alice quickly cut in, aware that it was the only way to get a word in edgewise. "And I'm looking for help to restrain or destroy it."
The Carpenter stiffened, but only for a moment. Then he was bouncing about again, pacing the carpet before her with his chin on his hand. "Most vexatatious, no doubt! We'll address that monstrosity directly – that's to say, eventually," he continued, dashing Alice's hopes just as they began to rise. "Now, let's intermediate more important matters." He raised a point-making finger. "Due to a logisterical foul-up, some of the show's requisites need to be gathered!"
"Beg pardon?" Alice said, frowning.
"Oh, it's just a thing or three," Carpenter told her with a smile. One hand whipped out in a grand sweeping gesture. "The munificent script needs fetching! The writer's overly imaginative – " He rolled his eyes and mimed taking a swig from a bottle " – and exploring several endings." The end of his hammer found its way under his chin as he pretended to play it like a violin . "Then you'll need to assemble the show's tune-deaf music." Then h is face lit up like the sun poking through the smog on a summer day as he stretched himself toward the sky. "And finally gather our stars! The show's tasty – uh, nay, taste ful performers," he quickly corrected himself, scratching the back of his neck with his hammer's claw. "Oyster sisters, lovely ladies, perfect accompaniment to Walrus here!" One purple-nailed hand flapped at her . "You should leave now. The essentiality of haste is essential."
Alice gaped at him. Mock had warned her that she'd likely be playing dogsbody again, but still – was he serious? Script, music, actresses – was there anything he did have for his oh-so-important debut? “It hardly seems you’re ready for the show!” she exclaimed as he at last paused for breath. “Why can’t you assemble these things yourself?”
The Carpenter shot her a deeply affronted look. “An impresario has arrangements!” he protested, flinging his arms to the sides. “Ducks in a row, fish to fry, coals to Newcastle, etcetera, etcetera.”
“The last I checked, those arrangements included having your cast, script, and orchestra on-hand. And you're not from Looking-Glass Land, where such backwards thinking would be acceptable."
“Phbbbt!" Carpenter spluttered. "We’re wasting valuable time, debating things that needn’t be debated!” One long tattooed arm jabbed at the sky (or whatever the watery equivalent was). “First things first – fetch the script from the writer! Then we can batter or clatter or natter as the case may be.”
Well, if she had to, she had to. It was the way the world worked – even nonsensical, insane ones, it appeared. Alice put her hands on her hips with a sigh. “Fine. Is the writer cantankerous?” That is to say, will he attempt to bludgeon me with his bottle on sight?
“To a personage of your distinguished repudiation?!” Carpenter gasped, then rested the back of one nail-peppered hand on his forehead in a mock fainting spell. “I blush at the notionality. He’s an octopus, by the by. Lives over that way.” The great hammer swooshed left before its owner turned away with a wave. “Ta ta. Let me know when everything’s ready!”
"Oh come now, you can't expect me–" Alice started, then stopped as she realized Carpenter had effectively forgotten she'd existed, busying himself with twirling his gigantic tool and muttering about his mysterious "arrangements" in the corner of the room. "Idiot," she hissed under her breath, before twirling on her heel to leave (and trying to ignore her sole shouting about rug burn as she did). "This has to be the most poorly-run show I've ever heard of." She glanced over her shoulder at the pair. "Then again, perhaps that’s just what one gets when one allows laborers and large sea mammals to run productions. Walrus is probably doing less damage sleeping the day away than Carpenter’s doing awake and busy."
She reentered the grand entrance hall of the theater, with its rich purple carpeting and dim seashell lamps . That fish gentleman she'd seen earlier was still lingering by the front doors – he tipped his hat politely as she appeared. Alice favored him with a curtsy before taking another look around. Two staircases, made of the same salvaged wood as the rest of the theater, flanked her, curving upward slightly toward the backstage – which in this case, would be more accurately called "sidestage," since they wrapped around the main amphitheat er in a tight hug. Alice headed up the one leading left, as Carpenter had indicated. This led into a smaller hall, lined with huge double doors. She wedged her fingers into the middle gap of the nearest and tugged . "Locked, of course. . . ." She tried a knock. "Hello? Mr. Octopus?"
No answer. Alice went down the line, rattling and knocking, and received only silence for her efforts. "Well, it was probably foolish of me to expect a short trip anyway," she admitted, slicing some teeth out of the sea melons stored against the back wall. (At least, they looked like melons – Alice had no idea what they really were. Some sort of spineless urchin?) "The long and hard road, that's Wonderland's way – although," she added, spotting a glimmer of light shaped like a keyhole next to the last door she'd tried – "maybe there's something of value here after all."
There was – a memory from her Nanny floating in one of the dressing rooms. The crystal feather transformed the space into the little parlor the Liddells had used as a music room, seating her at the piano's keyboard. “If you spent as much time practicing as you do in ‘Wonderland,’ you’d be the next Sullivan,” the image of Nan Sharpe – younger now, and dressed far more appropriately for looking after children – declared, arms folded as she loomed over her charge. Then she blinked and frowned. “Or Gilbert. One of them.”
Alice chuckled as the ghostly Nan dissolved into the currents. “I doubt that, Nanny,” she murmured as she investigated the makeup tables and costume trunks for other goodies, then backtracked through the keyhole and up to the doors that led back out into the Depths. “I’d never be able to play as fast as their operettas demand. And I’m sure Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t have to put up with imaginary friends insisting on cutting into their practice time.”
As if on cue, the Cheshire Cat appeared, tail flicking from side to side. Alice eyed him. “Convenient entrance, Cat. And what do you have to say for yourself?”
“For myself, nothing,” Cheshire replied. “For you, a brief warning that another battle is imminent. Fortunately, you’re sufficiently fortified to kick some aaa–” Cheshire coughed, then swallowed to regain his smooth, steady tone. “To boot these creatures’ nether regions.”
Alice smirked. “Why, Cat – has my best friend been rubbing off on you?” she teased. “No, wait, it can’t be that – even Victor is capable of saying the word ‘ass.’ Since when are you such a prude?”
Cheshire’s grin never faltered, but his eyes narrowed in clear annoyance. “Allow a cat not to sully his dignity with unnecessary swearing,” he grumbled, fading away to just eyes and teeth. “And I hope that Victor’s dislike for seafood has been rubbing off on you. You’ll need it.”
With that, he vanished entirely. Alice smirked at the spot where he'd been sitting, summoning her Hobby Horse from the ether. “Bring it on.”
“If I had eeeears, they’d be huuurting!”
“I do, and they are,” Alice muttered as she walked further into the tropical grotto. That drunken "artiste" of an Octopus had been right – perhaps some fish could sing, but this particular specimen was certainly not one of them. In fact, as she got closer, she realized the so-called "piscine diva" wasn't even a fish. The occupant of this bright spot of shallow sea was in fact a blue bottle that had sprouted fins, a tail, and a pair of googly eyes on long stalks. For something that normally would have been either worn away in the sand or dashed to pieces on the rocks, it looked well enough – but its voice was the whiniest, most unmusical thing she’d ever heard. Tune-deaf isn't sufficient to describe this odd being – more tune-dead. What on earth made you hire this thing to score your production, Carpenter? A trip to the Octopus's bottle pit, perhaps? She squinted. Actually, it does look rather like one of his empties. . . .
Still, she’d managed to retrieve the script from that self-same blobby, childish idiot, with the help of a bit of hide-and-seek. Perhaps there was hope for this creature too. Alice leapt from rock to rock, passing tall, flat-topped – flowers? No, "anemones," that's what Father's book had called them – swaying in the current, before landing on the highest of the pink stone platforms jutting out of the white sand. “Excuse my interruption," she said as the Bottle Fish aimed an eye stalk in her general direction. "I'm here on the behalf of the Carpenter. You're needed for the show, and – I’m not terribly musical, but you seem out of tune." Direct, but relatively polite, she congratulated herself. Maybe the Fish would be more inclined to be helpful if she didn't start off with "If you don't shut up I'm going to fill you with sand."
Of course, that was almost always a false hope when it came to Wonderland creatures. “It’s not my faaaault,” the Bottle Fish whined. “I can’t hear my nooootes.” It gestured with a fin to three silent shell speakers set into the mottled gray and green rock formations surrounding them. Under each was a round hole and a ramp of salvaged wood, along with some barely-visible tubing. “The pipes are ooobstruuucted.”
“I can see that,” Alice said, eying each in turn. Well, no, she didn’t really, but she understood what the Bottle Fish meant. “Why not do something about it? Call your musicians to play in here, maybe? It’s nice enough, and you wouldn’t need to rely on pipes then.”
“What – yeeeellll? And endanger my vooocal chords?!” the Bottle Fish gasped, bobbing up and down frantically. “That would beeeee a distasteeeeer! Besides, they’re stuuuuuck in the caaaves. Some strange black gooooop.”
"Ruin," Alice hissed to herself. Well, that just figured. “Can’t you free them?”
“Diiiiivas do not sully their fins with suuuuuuch things,” the Bottle-Fish proclaimed haughtily, turning up its “snout.” One yellow eye fixed on her. “You might do iiiit for meeeee.”
Oh, why was she not surprised. “Everyone here has an excuse for doing nothing!” Alice snapped, folding her arms. “Reminds me of the asylum.”
The Bottle Fish made no response to this – just looked at her expectantly. Alice let out a deep, irritated sigh. Yes, all right, I’ll go unblock your stupid –
A familiar glitter caught her eye, distracting her from her grumpiness. Not two feet away, under the diamond-patterned belly of the diva, a sparkling butterfly spun round and round, atop the umbrella-like head of a deep green anemone. She grinned, her annoyance fading. The Bottle Fish could wait a minute or two – and besides, Victor’s voice would be much more pleasant to listen to. She jumped onto the soft (and slightly slimy, eww) top of the flowery creature, then shattered the crystal.
Victor’s fingers danced over the piano keys, moving with a practiced grace almost entirely foreign to the rest of his body. The music spun out after them, alive with raw, wild passion. Alice would have sworn she could see the notes zipping through the air, glowing white-hot as they spiraled away from the instrument and into her ears. Victor’s right – it is like magic, she thought, grinning as the melody brought them higher and higher on wings of light and joy. Picking you up and whisking you away to a world so much brighter and freer than this one. And without a single bothersome hallucination to boot.
The last vibrating note flew away from the keys. Alice applauded as Victor took a deep, steadying breath, wiping sweat from his brow. “That was amazing! I've never heard anything quite like it – you should do more songs like these," she declared, eyes shining with the music's leftover glow. "You're certainly talented enough.”
Victor ducked his head, a shy smile playing on his lips.“Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I was nervous about showing off something so – lively .” He laughed softly. "Then again, I'm almost always nervous whenever I play in front of someone."
"You shouldn't be – oh, I know, it's too personal for you,” Alice added as he gave her a look. “But after performances like these, I can't think but think it's a shame." She touched his arm, running her fingers up and down his sleeve. "You’ve got a wonderful gift, Victor. I wish I could play half as well as you.”
There was a moment’s hesitation. Then Victor lifted his face to hers, biting his lip. “Well – if you’d r-really like to learn piano, Alice, I. . .” He stopped and swallowed, getting up his nerve. “I could give you a few lessons. No trouble at all. ”
“I’d rather you perform for Carpenter and show him what real music is like,” Alice murmured, hopping off the anemone as Houndsditch’s foyer was whisked away by the waves. “Then again, given how topsy-turvy everything is here, he’d probably consider your talents inferior to Miss Somehow-I-Have-Vocal-Cords-Despite-Being-A-Bottle."
"I can heaaaaar you, you knooooooow."
"Well, it's true, isn't it?" The diva huffed water with a faint whistle and turned away. "Fine, be like that. Just more proof that madman shouldn’t be in charge of a theater. . . .”
She had to admit, she still found it rather sad her friend was so averse to playing for others. Victor was an amazing pianist, and she was sure people would cram themselves into the most expensive theaters and music halls to hear him play. Even the most ardent music-hater would have to give up their dislike after one of his performances. But it was never to be. The idea of getting up on a stage, letting the masses have a glimpse of the deep swells of joy and rage and sorrow that lurked under his unassuming skin – well, it made her poor friend sick to his stomach. Music, for him, was deeply personal. His drawings were fine for sharing – in fact, he often sought out someone to show a particularly well-done sketch to – but his compositions? Those came straight from his soul, and could not be listened to by just anyone. Particularly not a group of strangers who would be judging every note coming out of the instrument. Alice could understand, even if she did feel it a terrible loss to the music community. She wasn't the type to share her childhood stories, particularly those regarding Wonderland, with just anyone herself – they were too innocent, too pure for that. Victor and Nanny were the only people she felt truly comfortable recounting her past with (and Dr. Bumby, she supposed, but only on a professional basis). The number of people Victor actively enjoyed sharing his music with was equally small: Victoria Everglot, Emily the corpse bride –
The thought was like a shot of Ice Snark breath, freezing her right on the threshold of the first of the three caves. She'd never really considered that before, but – it was true, wasn’t it? He’d been sharing his music with her for months now – ever since she’d given him that drawing of the Ball & Socket for his birthday. He told her about new ideas he'd had for concertos and the like, didn't shy away from playing if she was in the room. . .in fact, he’d even played for her a couple of times, when she was in a bad mood and needed cheering up. And she’d realized it was a privilege, yes, but – the only other person she could think of that had gotten to hear Victor play of his own volition was Emily. Was she truly the only living human he knew who had been blessed with such a gift? And that offer for lessons. . .mere desperation to share something he loved with the only person in the Home who would appreciate it? Or something – more? He’d named that piano duet with Emily as the moment he’d truly fallen in love with the corpse bride. And he’d confessed right afterward that he’d wanted to teach Victoria the instrument shortly after meeting her, wanting to share his deepest passion with the woman he’d expected to share the rest of his life with. Alice's heartbeat quickened as she twisted a piece of floating hair in her fingers. Could he truly – did wanting to give her lessons mean that – just possibly –
No, of course not! Alice scolded herself, rolling her eyes at her own stupidity as reality came crashing down. You know how he is. He hates talking about love and marriage, and who could blame him? He lost the first two women he ever contemplated spending eternity with – one quite literally – within a night of each other. It's a wonder his heart isn't harder than mine when it comes to letting people in. I doubt he wants to risk leaving bachelorhood ever again after that whole mess. He just thinks of you as a friend, you silly thing. A close friend, perhaps, but just a friend. She tugged the lock of brown in punishment. And besides – who would actually want the girl who spent ten years in Rutledge? You know damn well how fortunate you are that he didn’t run screaming into the night once you told him about your time in there. That he hasn’t run screaming seeing you struggle for every minute of sanity you can grab. Stop seeing things that aren’t there – er, well, as much as you can at the present moment – and just be grateful for what you have.
Still – knowing Victor both liked and trusted her enough to share his precious piano with her sent pleasant tingles running up and down her spine. Maybe, when I get back, I’ll ask if that offer for lessons still stands, she thought, entering the cave at last. I would like to see if any of that enormous talent might rub off on me. And he’s sure to be a better teacher than Nanny and her never-quite-right metronome. She grimaced as she ran up the rickety driftwood slope to the top of the chamber. Damn, I hope she’s all right after what Splatter did to her. . .and to her bar. . . .
For a fraction of a second, the Mangled Mermaid swam before her eyes, fire licking across the walls and ceiling as people screamed on the floor below. Then it was gone again, replaced by a large sandy area surrounded by rock and coral, and what looked like two tentacles holding drumsticks smothered under a thick cover of smoldering Ruin. Fresh pools of the muck bubbled up from under the sand as she jumped down, birthing a trio of Insidious and one Menacing, which greeted her with a snarl. Worry about that later, she thought, readying her Vorpal Blade. Time to give our diva her notes back! Though if it makes any difference to her voice, I’ll eat my seaweed necklace.
"Ugh – uhn – there!"
Alice straightened up as the last block finally fitted into place within the frame. The oyster starlet watching from her shell let out a delighted squeal, clapping her – hands, Alice supposed, although really they were just featureless little nubs. “You fixed it!" she cried in that painfully high-pitched voice of hers (makes one wonder why she wasn't chosen to do the music). "Carpenter will be so pleased!"
"We'll see," Alice mumbled, pressing a hand against her aching spine. Ugh, whose brilliant idea was it to paste a poster to a set of easily-disassembled blocks?! She'd probably strained something racing and twirling and fighting her way to find each one, before shoving and nudging them into their proper places. What was wrong with the usual method of rolling up a sheet of paper before slapping it to a wall with glue? How were you even supposed to – well, she guessed fish passing overhead could read it well enough. Still, this was a kind of ridiculous that made one wish they could magically push a button and skip to it being finished.
"At last, I can perform at my best!" the starlet continued, fluffing her hair and heedless of Alice's aches and pains. The taxi fish patiently waiting behind her opened its toothy maw, ready to provide passage to the next part of the Deluded Depths. With a bow, she turned and fluttered off down its gullet. "Let us now resume our place before our adoring fans at the Theater!”
“Yes, let’s,” Alice muttered. Her eyes raked over the completed image now lying on the seabed. “‘Totentanz – The Dance of Death’ better have been worth all this – Death?” Her head snapped up. “You silly girl, come back! It’s not a play! Come back!!”
But the oyster starlet was gone, her ride already disappearing into the darkness of the ocean. Alice groaned deep in her throat. “Stupid thing. . .I’d almost say you deserve to be eaten.”
She looked again at the poster, then pressed her hands against her eyes. How could she have been so foolish? She knew the poem! Or, well, she once had – Bumby's treatments had faded most of the stanzas. But the last few were clear enough, and those were the important bits. Stupid, stupid girl! Her suspicions should have been roused from the instant Carpenter had said the word "oysters." At the very least, the Octopus mentioning Walrus’s assigned role as the Reaper in this farce should have given her pause. “Seems an awful lot of work to go through just to get your lunch,” she muttered, poking at a loose corner on the lower left block. “And why would a community populated by fish enjoy a show all about devouring seafood?”
Well, it wasn’t her fate to stand here wondering – it was to go back to the theater and have a long, angry conversation with a certain pair of idiots. Leaving the poster to rot away on the ocean floor (and good riddance), she hailed another passing fish and climbed into its welcoming jaw. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll catch up with her and her sisters before they get onto the stage. Now I wish I'd made friends with those Cannon Crabs instead of fighting them; a little extra firepower would have been appreciated.
The time spent lying on the fish's tongue in blackness seemed endless, but finally the mouth opened again, depositing her – on a thin bridge of fossilized coral and fish skeletons above a massive ravine. "What the – no, wait!" Alice called, balancing precariously on the tiny path as the fish started to turn away. "I wanted to go to the Dreary Lane Theater!"
"This is as far as I go," the fish replied. "No interest in having words carved into my flesh!" Alice, remembering the unfortunate flounder that had served as a sign into Octopus's lair, had to nod in agreement. "Besides, it's only just past the Cemetery of Lost Souls."
"Cemetery?" Alice turned carefully. Sure enough, on the other side of the bridge was a larger outcropping of dead coral, ringed with rusting iron bars – and the broken, battered corpses of innumerable sunken ships. Tattered sails hanging by threads from the shattered masts billowed out in the dark swells, while oars creaked and rudders twirled. The Shipwreck Sharks must be livid at missing out on such a feast, she thought, peering past the wrecks to see a field of elaborate tombstones behind the iron. And this explains all those dead sailors I kept running into. . .you didn't just use the Sharks to construct your fortress of lies, did you, Carpenter? I'll give you that you at least gave the victims a proper burial, but that hardly makes up for your list of sins. "Just through this?" she confirmed, pointing.
"If you're that eager to take in the show. I hear it's to die for, which is why I'm staying well away."
And w ith a flick of its tail, the fish sped off. "Huh – seems we have one sensible creature in this world," Alice remarked, before carefully edging her way along the fragile path. "Probably more than I am currently." She wobbled, extending her arms for whatever good they would do. "It's far too much to expect those interred here to be at peace, isn't it? At least I know all their tricks by now."
She’d just reached the other side and was grudgingly admiring the way the gates of the cemetery formed a skull’s face when she spotted a dark shape racing through the cold blue water out of the corner of her eye. Spinning around, it resolved itself into the Walrus, Carpenter on his back, speeding toward her. As they drew near, Walrus suddenly reared up and smashed the bridge with his back fins, sending it toppling into the blackness below. Fresh anger flared up inside Alice. "If that was an attempt on my life, it was very poorly timed!" she called, fists clenched.
"What – oh," Carpenter said as Walrus pivoted to face her. "Nothing to worry about, my dear. Just cleaning up loose ends now that everything is in its proper place."
“Improper place, I'd say!" Alice shouted. "‘Dance of Death’ – my God, you’re not an impresario, you’re a killer! The mastermind of a criminal enterprise!” Although given I doubt how much mind you have, that's probably a gross exaggeration.
“This world is not so ‘either-or,’ Alice,” Carpenter replied as Walrus bobbed above the ravine, blowing bubbles from his snout. “The show will go on – it just may be those particular sisters’ last show.” He smirked. “Don’t tell me you actually care for them.”
“They’re whiny and annoying, true, but they still don’t deserve to be your lunch,” Alice shot back, glaring. “As it is, I’ve done your bidding. If I’m to be responsible for those girls’ deaths–” like I might have been for my family – no, Alice, don’t think about that “– the least you could do is hold up your end of the bargain!”
“You did a few errands, got your hands dirty – big deal,” Carpenter said dismissively, his wild red hair drifting like seaweed. “It was all in the service of art!”
“Art? What sort of art is murder on the stage?”
“It serves a higher purpose! The show distraculates the crowd from the terrors around them – shame you’ll miss it.” His voice lowered dangerously, as did his brow. “You need to deal with these sailors. It’s your time.”
“Time? Time?” Walrus suddenly cut in, wriggling his massive body and almost unseating his partner. “The time has come to talk of ships, and – uh – and vegetables, and royalty, and – uh – and whether pigs have wings, and so on–”
“Enough of that, Walrus!” the Carpenter shouted, leaning down with a glare sharper than the nails hammered through his hands and eyebrow. “You start wailing about there being too much sand on the beach, I’ll have your blubber for breakfast!”
If only he would, and spare those unfortunates she’d gathered for his show. “Shame on you, Carpenter,” Alice scolded, folding her arms. “You made a promise.”
“I had no choice,” Carpenter replied, ducking his head in a vague facsimile of regret. “One can’t always do as one would like." One pale green eye focused on her. "I’d have thought you’d know that by now.”
"What the hell is that supposed to–"
"Never mind! Not important! The show is in labor and we must be there to deliver!" Carpenter dug his heels into Walrus's sides. "Back to the theater, you bulging beast! And this time, I don't want any complaints about butter!"
The Walrus kicked his powerful fins and shot off back the way they'd come. Alice snatched up a rock and threw it after them to relieve her feelings. "Monsters!" If only she could swim with such speed! But that was impossible, even if she grew a mermaid's tail. No, she'd just have to take her chances in the cemetery and hope that she got there soon enough to maybe save an understudy or two –
And then, behind her, came the all-too-familiar sound of something clawing its way up through the sand. Alice spun around as the rusted cemetery gates creaked open. Rising from the nearest grave was a terrible sight: a blue-skinned sailor, with bone sticking out here and there where water-logged flesh had sloughed off. A broken bottle was clutched in one withered hand, and he clenched a rotting pipe stem between yellowed teeth. White-blue eyes glowed with malice as he gazed upon her, growling like an animal deep in the remains of his throat. Alice immediately summoned her Hobby Horse, going on high alert. These bastards were tricky, and only vulnerable when stunned. Hardly the joyous welcoming party Victor received on his visit to the underworld, she thought. At least this one’s not carrying bombs. “‘Die, die, we all pass away – but don’t wear a frown, ‘cause it’s really okay?’” she sang at the corpse, hoping a knowledge of the customs Below would perhaps earn its friendship instead of its ire.
The sailor paused, cocking his head and wrinkling his brow in confusion. Then he shrugged and dove under the sand, howling like a miniature freight train as he tore his way through the ground toward her. Alice dodged backward in a rabble of butterflies as he exploded upward, bottle poised to slash open her throat. “No musical taste,” she muttered. “Victor would be very disappointed, you know!”
The sailor ignored her scolding, trying a second stab before disappearing below the sand for another ambush. Alice sighed and circled around, tracking his movements carefully. “At least now I can be absolutely sure I’m not killing friends of yours,” she whispered to herself. “But don’t worry, Victor – I promise to spare any singing skeletons I may come across.”
The final china face shattered. Alice allowed herself a smile of triumph as the latest Ruin creature towering over her screamed in pain. Yes! That's you done for, you disgusting – pile of – oh no. . .
The monster, rather than dissolving back into a harmless puddle like its smaller brethren, was lumbering toward her again, bone-white arms reaching out around its wide "mouth" like giant pincers, ready to snatch her up for breakfast. No, no, no! Alice mentally shrieked, butterflying out of its path. You're supposed to be dead, you loathsome beast! That's how this works!
The beast seemed to think otherwise, waddling after her with surprising speed on its four arm-legs. She sprinted away around a spine-like spire of coral as fast as her aching limbs would allow, seeking cover. "Leave me alone!" she shrieked, spinning and peppering whatever part of the thing was closest. "I've already been down that gullet of yours! There is no need for a repeat!"
The monster groaned, then turned its maw skyward, letting out a deep roar. Moments later, huge sizzling balls of Ruin came raining down in a deadly meteor shower. Alice dodged and zipped around them, trying to keep as much distance between her and the beast as possible. But the gigantic mound of oozing tar and porcelain limbs and jagged metal pipes just kept getting closer and closer, seeking to swallow and suffocate her in its molten belly. Alice called upon the Vorpal Blade, wondering if she could at least make herself too pointy to suck all the way down –
Both Alice and the Ruin jerked their heads (or whatever passed for them) skyward as the whistle echoed all around. The monster flexed its body as it seemed to listen to some inaudible command. Then then it turned to Alice with a final enraged shriek – a promise that their battle was not yet over – before slamming itself into the sands, slithering away down some unknown burrow. Alice nearly collapsed in relief as it disappeared. Oh God. . .and here I was sure Menacing Ruins were the worst of the lot! she thought, leaning against the coral spire and panting. But that – that Colossal Ruin. . .if not for that call, I don't think I would have won that one. I wonder why it – no, you know what? I don’t care. I’m just glad I wasn’t expected to kill it! . . .this time, anyway.
With that disturbing thought in mind, Alice refreshed herself with some roses gathered from a pair of convenient treasure chests, then smashed her way through the brittle Ruin barrier blocking the exit from the impromptu battle arena. I’ve got to get back to the Theater, she thought, making her way up the slope beyond. Carpenter may be a parsimonious, pettifogging moron, and no friend to oysters, but I'd bet my last pound he's rounded up all of Barrelbottom for his grand performance. Which makes it the perfect place to warn everyone they're in danger from – what is that smell? God, have I managed to wander back onto the docks in my haze? The world's suddenly ripe with rotting –
fish. . . .
Her jaw dropped. Directly to her left, stretching out in gore-laden glory beneath the supports of another building whose construction had devoured a Shipwreck Shark or two, was – carnage. Dozens upon dozens of fish men and women lay piled in haphazard lumps between the forest of beams, their clothing stripped off and their skin torn away to reveal glistening, gnawed muscles and bone. Others had been nailed to beams, their guts pinned open for display, or hung from the ceiling on hooks, fins fluttering uselessly in the currents. All wore the same expression of pop-eyed horror, mouths gaping open in silent screams. Their blood soaked the sand at least two feet from the entrance to the man-made cave of horrors, and the water was rancid with the stench of decaying meat. Alice pressed her lips together tightly, doing her best to hold back vomit. Good lord, what happened?
Piteous moaning – barely audible, yet still insistently present – drew her attention. Wading very carefully into the sea of bodies (why had Wonderland not given her shoes with this dress?!), Alice saw a most peculiar creature crucified against a hanging anchor. His body was at least human enough to warrant the wearing of a neat blue tailcoat and black pants, but his head was clearly that of a shellfish – a nautilus, she thought, examining the orange stripes curling around the U-shaped shell. It resembled the picture in Papa's book well enough, at any rate. A blood-speckled saw was stuck halfway into what passed as his forehead, as if someone had been trying to crack him open only to abandon the endeavor as too difficult. There was also a badge pinned to his chest – Alice leaned forward to read the word “Mayor” printed in neat gold letters on the red circle. "I didn't even know Barrelbottom had a government," she murmured, reaching up and twisting her fingers into his tentacles. He groaned, seeking what comfort he could from the touch. “Mayor of nothing but a grave now, though. I wish I could ask you what went wrong."
“Every picture tells a story. Sometimes we don’t like the ending. Sometimes we don’t understand it.”
Alice jerked her head to the side, but Cheshire was already fading from sight. Her lips tightened again, this time into a deep frown. Obtuse and roundabout as always, but the Cat did have a point. This picture did tell a story – and she did not like the ending. Hadn't she already worked out that Walrus and Carpenter's big "show" was simply an excuse to eat the stars? Why should she be surprised that they were willing to do the same to the audience? “No wonder they tried to get me killed fighting those shades,” she muttered. “What monsters. . . .”
Well, she wasn't dead yet – and judging by the look of the architecture here, she was just outside the diabolical duo’s headquarters. "Hang on, sir – I'll see if I can't get you some revenge," she told the Mayor, extracting her fingers from his suckers. Then she turned and ran up the wooden ramp leading out of the slaughter and into the pink-tinted darkness of backstage Dreary Lane Theater. Wiping her red feet on the carpet, she flicked the Vorpal Blade into her hand, the scent of blood deep in her nostrils.
Time for the show.