Chapter 13: An Unpleasant Return
October 16th, 1875
Threadneedle Street, London’s West End, England
“Did I rip his head off? I. . .wanted to. . . .”
The sound of her own voice was a shock, pulling her abruptly from the blackness. Alice pushed herself up with a groan, pressing her hand against her face. What happened? she wondered, rubbing circles on her forehead. Why am I on the floor? The last thing I remember is. . . .
"Tell me, Alice – and please, try not to take this the wrong way – did you like to play with matches as a girl?"
Black, white, and red rage nipped at her consciousness. That fat bastard! she thought, teeth gritted. How dare he – no, wait a minute. Wasn't that – wasn't that the last time I came here? I seem to remember the sun shining through the window. . .of course, I wouldn't put it past him to do something as silly as say it again, but. . . . She blinked a few times, staring at the floor. Focus, Alice, focus. Go through it from the beginning. I made it to Threadneedle Street. . .Radcliffe buzzed me in. . .I went up to his office. . .and he had my rabbit sitting on his desk, bold as brass! Told me again that I'd abandoned it at the asylum! Stuff and nonsense – they shoved me out the door before I could check it was securely packed! I should have just snatched it from him and –
And why would he have Mr. Bunny on his desk , he's a lawyer and a very dull one at that. Why would he be playing with stuffed toys? Of course, that begs the question of why he took the damn thing in the first place. I guess it is part of my inheritance – and not worth enough to finance an Australian farm. Cannot believe he suggested that, as if I were a criminal being thrown into exile. . . . Still, given all the trouble I've thrown his way over it, you'd think he'd have either returned it or chucked it in the bin by now. Ugh. . . . "What's left of my brain will explode," she complained to the floorboards. " Did I simply faint once I was inside? Would go along with every other rotten thing that's happened today." She brushed dirt from her skirt. "And shame on Mr. Radcliffe for just leaving me in the dust!"
Alice frowned. That didn't make sense. Radcliffe was a stickler for a clean house – she'd seen him berate his maids plenty in the past for failing to properly dust his various Oriental ornaments: "They're worth at least fifty times what I pay you in a year, so they must be taken care of!" So why in God's name would his office be so –
So. . . .
Alice’s jaw dropped as she finally took in her surroundings. She was still in Radcliffe’s office, but the only reason she knew that was because the wallpaper (what was left of it) was the same. The room had been utterly trashed since she'd seen it last. Crooked boards covered the windows, letting in only small slivers of light. The fireplace was dark and cold, and even the ashes had long since blown away. The bookshelves, the vases and pots, the fine Chinese rug, the set of authentic Japanese samurai armor – all had vanished into the aether. The only furnishings left in the room were a teetering pile of books, cocooned in dust; Radcliffe's old desk, now scratched and gnawed; and the busted remains of a pair of chairs, scattered across the floor. This room was certainly no longer host to the operations of a moderately-well-off lawyer now. By the look of things, it had been abandoned for at least a month, if not longer. What the – how long was I out?! Alice thought, scrambling to her feet and looking around wildly. Where’s Radcliffe? And my rabbit? Were they ever even here? What is going on?!
The only answer to her questions was a jolt of pain across her skull. Alice winced and squeezed her temples. “Let's try not to panic,” she told herself. "Maybe I never even made it to Radcliffe's. Taking a wrong turn while fleeing from Splatter is very likely – and seeing what I wanted to see when I did, even more so." She stepped forward and touched the desk as a test. It seemed solid enough under her fingers – but then, she could say the same of the Vorpal Blade. “Of course, having copies of people from reality yell at me is something of a new experience. Is it mad to pray for better hallucinations?”
The empty office gave her no reply. Alice sighed. “This is what I get for listening to that mangy feline,” she muttered. “Perhaps I’m fated to expire right here.”
Well – there was one bright spot to discovering she was madder than ever. Without Radcliffe here to summon the police, she was free to poke around as she would. There wasn’t much to poke at, granted, but perhaps the desk held something of interest. Could he have left the inquest report? Searching the drawers, however, revealed nothing but dirt – and in the case of the leftmost one, a pile of rat droppings. She slammed them closed and got on her hands and knees to examine underneath. More dust, and a scrap of old newsprint, but that was it. "Damn him," she mumbled, crawling back out. “I dodged being made an example of by Jack Splatter for this?”
Did you? a voice that sounded just a bit too close to the Queen's for comfort commented. ( She's dead, she's dead, she can't hurt you anymore Alice. . . . ) What was it you said to Victor right before you split? "Jack's more interested in you than me?"
Alice's insides flip-flopped. Oh God – while she was having fits in abandoned houses, Victor was running for his life from one of the East End's worst. She'd felt fairly confident in his escape before, what with that cat on their side, but now. . .was he all right? Had Splatter caught up with him after they’d separated? Or had he found someplace to hide? He's smart, and he's gotten the best of Splatter twice. A third time shouldn't be that hard to manage – right? She swallowed down an anxious lump in her throat. Damn it, I hope I was right to trust you, cat. Otherwise we’re going to have words.
She got back to her feet and slapped her hands together to knock the dust off them. Well, she was certainly no help to her best friend up here. Time to head back outside and see if she really was at Radcliffe's – and, if so, if Victor had arrived. If not – he'd walked all over the East End for her sake. It was only fair that she do the same for him, if necessary. Leaving the office to continue rotting, she headed for the stairs.
Shredded wallpaper and bare gas fixtures greeted her, along with broken bottles and tattered clothing strewn across the floor. Alice kicked a shoe out of the way as she went along the hall. At least someone's getting some use out of this place. . .though I hope I don't run into the human rat pack that's colonized it. They generally don't take kindly to intruders. She paused at the end of the hall. The stairs are in the right place. . .and those marks on the floor should be where the table for his most prized Ming vase sat. So I guess this is Radcliffe's! . . .which is only a tiny comfort when you consider he's just up and vanished on me. Obviously he's moved, but why not sell up? What on earth could possibly have encouraged him to just abandon the place?
"Let's pretend that I'm a hyena, and you're a bone! Give me the report!! "
Alice winced. Right. Having your not-exactly-stable client scream and throw ink at you just might do it. One of these days I'll learn to control my temper better. I just hope it's not too late for Mr. Bunny.
She carefully descended the stairs, hesitating at every creak. Time was that you could barely hear yourself walk, with the thick carpet covering the steps. And the light patches on the walls, where pictures had once hung, seemed like windows into another world. It was odd indeed to see the house in such disrepair. It gave her a bit of a chill, if she was honest. Although maybe that's just the weather leaking in, she tried to convince herself as she made it back to the ground floor. I wonder if my forecast was wrong and it has started raining. Wouldn't that be just perfect? She detoured toward the study and poked her head in. Dust motes drifted and twirled in the dim splashes of light leaking through the planks and grime. Hmmm. . .not as dark as it should be for rain, and no telltale patter of water against glass. Small mercy. Let's get out of here and back to civilization. Squaring her shoulders, she marched toward the front door –
And found it as thickly boarded up as the windows.
Alice stared, then ran her hand over the wood. It nibbled at her fingertips, rough splinters attempting to lodge themselves in her flesh. What – how – I – I know that's to keep squatters out – though fat lot of good it's done – but then – how did I get in? I could have sworn I used this door! Then again, I could have sworn this house was occupied when I first arrived. She turned around, rubbing her arm in thought. I must have used the old servants' and tradesmen's entrance round the back, on the lane. You'd think that would be blocked too, but. . . . Deciding not to contemplate the possibility that the entire house was just her imagination, she made her way around to the rear.
Sure enough, the back door was hanging wide open, revealing the little square behind – and a light snow falling from the sky. "Oh, lovely," Alice groused as she exited onto the white-dusted cobbles. “I'd say it's too early in the year for such miserable weather, but it's turned out to be such an awful day it only seems right at this point.” She glared at the slate gray clouds, then wiped a few flakes from her eyes. “Let's just get round the front and – and if no one's been living here at least a month, why is there a new ornament for the square?”
She squinted at the pedestal that had caught her eye, resting dead center among the old, hibernating trees dotting the cobbles. It wasn't really anything special – just your average plinth of plain stone. Mounted on its top was a statue that appeared to be made of brass, much too small for anyone to enjoy from a distance, and ringed by jagged chunks of glass. Did someone put a snow globe out here? That's a weird object to desire in your back courtyard. Curious, she moved forward to investigate further.
Only to be confronted with the melancholy face of the Mock Turtle, map in flipper as he pointed toward the horizon.
Alice’s stomach plunged straight into her feet. No – oh no no no, she thought, backing up a couple of steps. Don’t you dare, Wonderland, don’t you DARE –
But it was too late. Reality had already come loose around her – hadn’t she been tricked into thinking she was talking to Radcliffe when she was in fact addressing empty air? And now, in the alley beyond the square (mysteriously snow-free), she could see mushrooms peeking out of the road, scorched black by a smoldering coat of Ruin. Come, Alice, they seemed to beckon from the oozing puddles, their caps gently bobbing. Time to pick up your Blade again. Time to see just what you’ve been missing while you swallowed pills and entertained orphans. Time to leave reality behind once more.
Alice stepped back again, eyes angry slits. “Not this time! You do not get to yank me back to Wonderland whenever you please!" she snarled. "What happened when I actually wanted to come and get this over with, hmm? If you have no regard for my feelings, why should I have any for yours? Besides which, I promised Victor I wouldn’t stir from this house until he arrived." She folded her arms tight across her chest and turned her head away. "Sit there and sizzle all you like. Wonderland can rot for all I care!”
The earth beneath her feet shuddered, as if in pain. “Is that really what you want, Alice?” a familiar voice purred. “You seemed quite eager to rescue this world a month ago.”
“A month ago I discovered I was working on getting myself killed while trying to save all of you,” Alice muttered, refusing to look in its direction. “A month ago I learned I was courting a return to Rutledge by indulging your whims. A month ago I scared my best friend in the entire world – in any world – out of his wits and indirectly led to him having to dodge death every time he leaves Houndsditch. Is Wonderland worth all that?”
"You tell me,” Cheshire replied. “But if Wonderland rots, so do you. And while your best friend may not mind external decay, I think the internal kind will make him worry about you all the more.”
. . .Damn the Cat, but he had a point. Alice glanced back at the mushrooms, glistening under their oily cover. The Ruin was clearly still infesting her mind. . .and Bumby’s therapy was not helping to combat it at all. How could it, with her stubborn unconscious fighting him at every turn? She bit her lip. Was her only hope to be rid of the infection donning her blue dress again? Was sanity only possible after a deep dive into the waters of madness? Her world was little more than a fractured mess at this point. . .was Wonderland better or worse than Radcliffe’s ever-changing house?
"Stop dithering, girl – you are a woman of action. The dogs of war are loose – time to raise some havoc!”
Alice closed her eyes, doing her best to hold back a few shameful tears. “Forgive me, Victor,” she mumbled. “But – I really do think this is more important." She took a deep breath to steady herself. "I’ll try my best to stay out of trouble. Please, please do the same.” Then, adopting a stiff upper lip and her most confident stride, she left the square, following the mushrooms down the alley, around the corner –
And into the deepest reaches of Hell.
The change was terrifying in its abruptness. One moment, houses and offices with high chimneys and fancy cupolas loomed over her – the next, they were tumbling away into a swirling vortex the color of smoke and flame, shaken free from their foundations by the roar of the Infernal Train passing overhead. Baked brown earth replaced the cobbles beneath her feet, and the fading snow was overtaken by a rain of rocks. Alice scanned her new surroundings as she shifted into Wonderland form. The world here was a mass of tiny floating islands, all burnt and broken from the relentless run of the Train. The giant trees were stripped bare, reaching pitch-black branches to the unearthly sky; clusters of mushrooms dropped bits of ashen flesh from their caps, cooked to a crisp by the heat; and what appeared to be the abandoned shells of oversized snails still glowed faintly from embers caught in their spirals, scorched and – And I think I preferred it when I thought the Vale had been knocked out the sky!
It may as well have been – there was almost nothing left of the cheerful, sunny place that had welcomed her to Wonderland before. Part of Alice wanted to burst into tears – her poor, gorgeous Vale! – but a much larger part of her wanted to scream in rage. “This bloody Ruin!” she snarled, glaring as a fresh sheet of the wretched black goop came cascading down in the Infernal Train's wake. “It’s corrupting all of Wonderland!”
“Were you expecting something else?” a ubiquitous grin asked her. Moments later, the rest of Cheshire joined it. “Perhaps things only look like they’ve gone to Hell.”
Alice turned the glare on him. “You’re not that good a liar, and I’m not that stupid,” she informed him. “I knew damn well I was walking into unpleasantness. But something a bit less calamitous would have been welcome.”
The Cat continued grinning at her – not that she’d ever seen him do otherwise. If he ever lost his smile, he did so only in private. “This unmitigated disaster is your doing – and it will get worse,” he told her, tail flicking from side to side. “Your train keeps a hellish schedule – you need to do likewise." He leaned forward, eyes burning yellow. "Get moving! Time waits for no one. The change has begun.”
"That is not my train," Alice retorted. She wasn't certain of a lot anymore, but she knew that in her bones. Perhaps it had been built by Wonderlanders, but there was such an aura of wrongness to the locomotive that she couldn’t accept it as her own. Cheshire could blame her for letting it run wild if he liked, but someone else was the driving force behind its construction. But who? “And it is perfectly capable of terrifying me, Cat. You should find another job.”
"I think you'll find we lack many of the necessary vices of economy at the moment."
"You know what I mean!" In a softer voice, she added, “Is there really so little hope?” This did look like the end of all things, but. . .they'd recovered from such dire straits before. Was this Infernal Train, terrible as it was, really worse than the Queen of Hearts?
Cheshire flicked an ear. “There’s even less," he said, apparently unconcerned if the world fell apart around him. "And if fear paralyzes you, we’re lost.” He gestured with a paw, his smile now looking more like a smirk. “My recommendation? Do what your Victor wants you to so badly and take his name.”
And with that, he vanished, leaving Alice to gape at empty air. “What – I – you – you’re on my arse to marry him now?!” she yelled as she attempted to recover her wits. “How does that help Wonderland?!”
“You're not a dunce, girl, though you do a good impression – you can figure that out for yourself,” Cheshire’s disembodied voice commented. “But I said nothing about you becoming a Van Dort – not yet, anyway.”
"You and your–" Alice started, then stopped as black puddles began oozing up from the dust around her, slowly coalescing into more mobile forms. "Oh, never mind," she mumbled, summoning her Blade and readying her Umbrella. She could worry about infuriating Cats making jokes at her expense later. Right now, I have some oily arse to boot.
Vale of Doom
“. . .I know my memory's not the best, but I truly don’t recall Hatter and Hare’s tea table being that elaborate. Or shaped so much like a corkscrew. Or floating.”
Alice stood at the edge of the clearing, watching the twisted table revolve slowly in midair. Despite the fact that all its guests had abandoned it long ago, it still bore the remains of what had once been touted as an eternal teatime. The pristine tablecloth, shining teapots, and mismatched china stood out like a sore thumb against the webs of Ruin and hunks of rusty machinery circling it. "Shouldn't you be in Hatter's Domain?" Alice asked, hands on her hips. "At the very least, you think Hare would have dragged you off to Cranking Up & Pressing Down when he took it over. God knows that, whatever other changes forced upon him, he and his friends never lost their obsession with tea." She glanced around, noting the presence of teacups and milk jugs as big as her mixed in with the gears and pipes. "On the other hand, this does resemble whatever might remain of the Crockery. . . . Are you the source of the Madcaps' weapons?"
The table simply continued to turn, a never-ending spiral of white amid the darkness. Alice sighed and straightened up. Oh, I suppose it doesn’t really matter, what with the world flying apart around me. The real question is, where do I go from – hang on, what’s this?
A single beam of sunlight had abruptly broken through the churning clouds overhead. It shot down with focused precision through the center of the table’s gentle whorl, highlighting another, smaller table underneath –
And the teapot that sat upon it, just waiting to be picked up. Alice eyed it briefly, then moved forward in a cautious stop-start, ever alert for danger. The teapot glimmered as she neared, as if in invitation. It was of a curious design – made of rusty brown metal instead of porcelain, accented here and there with rings of silver. The spout curved out in a sideways S, much like an elephant's trunk, and flared comically large at the tip. On the side, covered by thick green glass, was a clock, set (of course) at six. As she leaned over it for closer examination, she spotted words etched into the lip of the lid. “‘The Mad Hatter Manufacturing, Inc. Patented January 27th, 1874.' I can't say I'm surprised. . .but what exactly is it you do, Mr. Teapot?" she asked the erstwhile drinks container. "Surely you’re meant for more than pouring a cuppa. . . .”
And then she saw it, tucked into the curve of the handle: a trigger, like one might find on a gun. "Oh?" Her interest more than piqued now, she picked up the device. Something inside clanked, rolling from side to side. Was it a gun of some sort? No, with a “barrel” that large, it was really more like a cannon. . . .
The wet squelch of pain arriving distracted her from her musings. Looking up, she found a large mob of Insidious Ruins popping up from the earth, toddling toward her with malicious intent. She butterflied a few paces back, then aimed her new toy at them. “Very kind of you to appear like this and let me test this thing out,” she commented, strafing back and forth so they couldn't get a lock on her. “If you could all bunch together a bit more? . . .Perfect! Now, as Father used to say, hold still–” She pressed down hard on the trigger “–and say ‘cheese!’”
The teapot shook in her hands, lid rattling dangerously as steam built up inside. Then, just when Alice was sure the damn thing was going to go pop and cost her a finger, something came rocketing out of the spout, nearly knocking her on her keister. Oh! Shades of the Blunderbuss there, she thought, managing to regain her balance. Does it do as much damage? Training her eyes on the sky, she saw what looked like a bulging tea infuser sailing through the air, trailing hissing white mist. This mysterious projectile landed right in the center of the group of Ruins –
And exploded, drenching the unfortunate beasts in a shower of hot green tea. The ones in the middle didn’t stand a chance against the boiling liquid – they immediately shrieked their last as their bodies dissolved. The others wailed in pain as they were splashed with whatever remained, scuttling away from the blast zone. Alice’s eyes lit up with malicious glee. Oh yes – definitely a cannon! She whirled in the direction of the largest of the splinter groups and hit the trigger again.
Only to hear an annoyed “chock, chock” as the weapon sputtered. Alice frowned down at it, and noticed its clock now indicated noon. “Oh, it's a gauge. . .must need some time to cool down, then,” she mumbled, sending it away in favor of the Pepper Grinder for a moment and introducing another Ruin to its maker. “No matter – Hollow Yves will help with that, I’m sure.” She sliced and diced a couple that got too close, smacked another with the Hobby Horse, then resummoned the teapot. A quick check proved tea time had come around again, so Alice sent another infuser flying, smashing the remaining Ruins to bits. She grinned in smug satisfaction. “Oh Hatter – my deepest apologies for not reacting appropriately to your death!”
A sudden growl alerted her to the fact that the fight wasn’t quite over. Keeping a firm grip on the Teapot Cannon, she turned to see – oh no.
Oversized porcelain arms burst through the dirt, dragging up behind them a column of hissing black crowned with wheels and pipes. More arms slithered out of the rear of the beast, forming a quartet of steadying legs. The beast lay leechlike on the earth for a moment, before pushing itself vertical. A legion of blank white faces popped out, gaping at her from all over its trunk, before they were pushed back protectively under the ooze. Damn it. . .so soon, Wonderland? Really? I'm not sure I'm fully healed from the last time!
The Colossal Ruin (the same one she’d fought before? She'd been sure she'd broken all its gawking heads, but maybe the Infernal Train had healed it up somehow), however, seemed disinclined to delay their battle. It screamed rage at her from its enormous maw, cold fingers scratching at the air. Alice butterflied away as fast as she could, putting as much distance as possible between herself and the beast. “All right – just apologies for now, Hatter,” she corrected herself. “Deepest apologies as soon as your weapon proves itself capable of killing one of these!”
"Hiyah yourself, you idiot!" Alice snapped, deflecting the tines of the oversized fork with her Blade. "You are aware you're attacking the woman trying to make the world right again?"
The Madcap didn't seem to care, continuing his attempts to skewer her on his giant cutlery. Alice dodged his next stab, then managed to circle around to his left and slash at his neck. One two, one two, and through and through – and the miniaturized spawn of Hatter fell over, head cleaved from his shoulders. "Why is it I can never get any useful allies?" Alice grumbled, watching the body crumble away. "A Madcap or two would at least be handy as a distraction for all these Ruins – and if I could recruit an Eyepot! Even those bloody flying Drifting wouldn't stand a chance."
But such things were not to be – it seemed every creature in Wonderland, native or foreign, was more focused on ending her than each other. Not that she'd seen many natives. This Madcap, along with his two friends and their pet Eyepot, had been the only non-oozing faces she’d come across since Cheshire had done his usual runner. Well, all right, there was also Caterpillar, but she hadn't actually seen him. She'd merely heard his voice, trapped in festering hookahs lying forgotten around the landscape. And for all she knew, those were just a kind of recording, the smoke functioning much the same way as a wax cylinder in a player piano. (Sure, he'd responded to her comments, but the insect was the local oracle.) Until he bothered to show his face, she wasn't going to count him. Everything else, flora and fauna alike, was gone, burned away by the legions of Ruin patrolling and infecting the land. I'll give you that you were right the last time we spoke, you squishy layabout, she thought as she peppered and teaed the latest battalion to show their ugly faces. This change is most definitely not for the better. But I refuse to believe this was an inevitable consequence of time. Someone seeks nothing less than my Wonderland's total destruction, and that someone is behind the Train. I've got to catch up with it, and soon. It’s the only way to save Wonderland. She glanced back at the mixed-up shards of the Vale and Hatter's Domain behind her, hanging helplessly in mid-air. Whatever’s left of it.
She finished off the last of the Ruins – God, it was fun to make the Drifting ones pop! The Teapot Cannon earned its keep just for that – then jumped and floated her way to the next useful ledge. Half her own face met her there with an accusing stare, the remaining eye weeping dried Ruin down the battered stone arm. "At least it's not feeding one of those boiling rivers of the stuff," Alice muttered. "Or worse, assaulting me with Slithering, like the last time we met." She kicked away a hunk of carved hair and turned around.
Behind her sat the platform for the Looking-Glass Line she'd come across over a month before. The passage of time had not been kind to it – it was a full-on wreck now, burnt and rusted and just barely hanging together. Alice got the feeling it would collapse if she breathed on it too hard. Scattered around it were a few metal crates, courtesy of the fallen factories of Hare and Dormy – and, resting on the train station stairs, a crystalline butterfly. Oh good! Alice quickly smashed the containers for their bounty, then approached the familiar creature. I could use a friendly face right about now. A gentleman as always, Victor. Her fingers brushed the icy glass – the world around her warped – and then –
Rap-rap-rap. “Victor? It’s time for tea.”
No reply. "Victor?" Alice knocked again. "You don't want to be late for table. That's another one of Dr. Bumby's famous lectures. Besides, I haven't seen you all day."
Again, nothing but silence. With a frustrated huff, Alice tried the knob. The door swung open, revealing Victor sitting on his bed, his back to her, apparently doing nothing more important than staring at the wall. "Look, I know I'm not one to give anyone a hard time over daydreaming," she started, approaching him, "but I'd like to get an answer when I–"
She stopped as his face came into view. Her friend looked the very definition of the word “haggard.” His eyes were dull, staring blankly off into space, and the dark circles around them were more prominent than ever. His hair was mussed, and his clothes badly wrinkled, sagging from his absurdly thin frame. And he was sitting so slumped over his chest was almost touching his knees, as if he was being crushed under some great weight. Not a very pretty picture. “Are you all right?” she asked, irritation forgotten.
Victor finally seemed to notice her. “Oh, hello, Alice,” he mumbled. Even his voice sounded worn out – like it had simply given up on life. “What is it?”
"It’s tea time, if you want any. . .are you sick?” Alice pressed a hand against his forehead. The skin was cool.“You look a mess.”
"I know,” he sighed, shuffling his scuffed shoes against the floor. “I’m sorry, I just – this morning, looking in the mirror, I got to thinking, and. . .I just never got around to making myself look presentable, I’m afraid.”
"Thinking about what?” Alice asked. What ghastly topic could have reduced him to this state? Not even last fortnight's session managed that.
"About everything that’s happened to me. . .and about getting older.” Victor resumed staring at the wall, as if hoping to find the secrets of life encoded in the peeling paper. “I'm going to be twenty years old soon, Alice. Twenty. Do you know, most men that age in my village are either married or just about to be? One or two might even have a baby on the way. That was going to be my life as well. I was going to have a wife, start working officially in Father's business, and – well. Be just like everyone else. Instead look at me. Banished from everything I've ever known. Stuck in a place meant for children. Being treated like some sort of invalid who can’t possibly know what’s best for himself.” He let out a deep, weary sigh. “Some days it feels like my entire world’s fallen apart on me. Like I’ll never have a ‘normal’ life aga–”
He stopped short , eyes flicking toward her as he realized who he was talking to. “Oh – Alice, I’m s-so sorry!” he cried, snapping up straight and grabbing his tie. “I d-didn’t mean to suggest my problems are – do forgive me.”
Alice extended her hand to touch Victor’s shoulder, the words, “It’s fine,” on her lips, but the moment her fingers made contact, he abruptly dissolved, like morning mist on a summer's day. His room followed immediately after, throwing her back into the Vale of Doom. "So much for a pleasant trip back in time," she mumbled, dropping her arm. "I was so hoping for something happy too. What's the point of showing me depressing things when I'm already in such a horrible–"
"And I promise I won't stir from Radcliffe's house until you get there!"
". . .Guilt was supposed to stop creeping up and biting me in the behind when the Jabberwock died."
Saying that didn't make things any better, of course. Alice bit her lip as she turned her gaze toward the whirling vortex in the sky. She'd punch anyone who suggested that she hadn't suffered more than her fair share in the short twenty years she'd been alive. She'd watched her entire childhood go up in flames, the screams of her family echoing in her ears. She'd lain near-catatonic for a decade locked in Rutledge Asylum, suffering the "care" of sadists and fools. She'd fought free of her madness and bedlam's walls, only to discover her hallucinations would not be conquered so easily. She'd struggled and scraped to survive on the outside, unable to tear what was rightfully hers from the sticky fingers of the family lawyer. She'd given therapy another chance, desperate for relief, only to find either her doctor a dunce or her mind too stubborn to allow itself to be cured. And now, here she was, watching one of the last good things in her life be torn to shreds by that horrible Train. Oh yes, she was no stranger to pain. Her life was pain.
But then again – so was Victor’s. At least she'd had the pleasure of eight happy years with parents and a sister who loved her. Victor's sole source of childhood companionship had appeared to be his dog. And yes, pets were wonderful (she couldn't think ill of Dinah, even if everyone did blame the cat for the fire), but even the sweetest-tempered mutt couldn't fully make up for having to deal with parents more concerned with social-climbing than raising their son. He'd grown up rich, comfortable, and achingly lonely. He'd been engaged to a woman sight-unseen and told he just had to deal with it. And then he'd not only fallen hard and fast (much too fast) for his intended, but another woman as well, all in less than two days – only to abruptly lose them forever at the end of it all. He’d been ostracized by his entire village – called evil and damned – for a delusion that, though strange, seemed relatively harmless, even fun, to her. He’d been exiled from his home, forced into the care of someone he despised, all because no one would accept him wanting to honor, even in private, the memory of the corpse bride. He'd struggled through his new world, dodging nasty looks and rumors, children with a wicked sense of humor, and a doctor who simply wouldn't taken no for an answer. He'd gotten on the bad side of the most dangerous pimp in the city, and it was probably only a matter of time before he paid in blood.
And the one friend he'd made had turned out to be a lunatic who drove him mad with worry every time her brain decided reality was too boring to deal with. A friend he was too embarrassed to have a whinge to about his problems for fear of hurting her feelings. A friend who was only too happy to complain about how one of the worst moments of his life brought her down when she didn't even know if he was – if he –
She covered her face with her hands. "Why do you put up with me, Victor?" she mumbled. "Why do you insist on being my friend? I only bring pain and misery to those around me." She spread her arms wide. “Exhibit A, not that you can see it. Are you back to wandering all over the city, trying your best to find me? Or are you holed up back at Houndsditch, angry that I broke my promise?” She blinked back a sudden damp in her eyes. “Or – or did Jack Splatter catch you at last, and I – I won't know until the funeral's already come and gone?”
Lightning flashed from the swirling clouds, followed by a growl of thunder. Suddenly, despair was replaced with rage. "Damn you!" she screamed at the sky. "Haven't I lost enough people already? What's the point of tracking down the Train if seeing him in his coffin is likely to break me yet again?! Do you really want me to have no one but the fevered imaginings of my own mind?!"
The thunder roared back at her. Alice whirled and threw her Vorpal Blade into the remains of her egotistical bust, then ran forward like the madwoman she was, launching herself into the next gust of hissing vapor. "You'd better give me something to kill soon," she growled.
Fortunately, the Vale of Doom was more than happy to present her with fresh targets. Slithering Ruin, Insidious Ruin, Madcaps, Drifting Ruin – and at the end of a long work-around through a sideways chunk of Cranking Up & Pressing Down, even a new Colossal Ruin. Alice faced it with a furious joy in her heart, smashing the tiny faces dotting its body while screaming challenges. "Come and get me, if you think you're strong enough! I know your tricks now, you monstrous slug! You and your Train can go straight! To! Hell!"
The Colossal Ruin shrieked, bits of flaming porcelain falling off its sides. Then it squirmed and writhed, shifting its crown of machinery forward as a final , larger white mask emerged from the muck above it. The wheels spun, steam hissed, and fire exploded from the pipes now serving as its upper teeth. Before, when Alice had seen that, she'd cried out in terror and run wildly in circles until it had exhausted its fuel and slumped down for the kill. Now, though, the sight of this beast trying to use her greatest fear against her simply fueled her rage. " Never again! "
The tea infuser flew, and the Ruin dropped forward, stunned. Alice darted forward in a flurry of blue wings, the Blade already in her hand. One-two-three-four-five – change it up for a few swings of the Hobby Horse – six-seven – another blast of tea to keep it down – eight-nine-ten –
The shatter of broken china filled the air, and the Ruin flailed helplessly at the air before collapsing onto its side. Shortly after, the gigantic body melted into a harmless puddle, golden teeth and metaessence raining down in reward. Alice snatched it all up, nearly as red as the glittering roses from the exertion. "See? See?! Whatever you throw at me! I'll defeat it! I will not be conquered!"
The smell of old tobacco caught her nose. A quick jog through the tunnel the Colossal Ruin had haunted brought her to yet another moldering hookah. Alice broke through the brittle Ruin shell covering it and took a hard whiff from the pipe. "And what do you have to say for yourself?" she demanded.
"You honestly think that we would keep it from you if Victor was in true peril?”
Alice's rage stuttered and took a step back. Caterpillar actually sounded hurt by that. "What am I supposed to believe?" she asked, sucking in a few deep breaths to clear the smoke from her sinuses. "You dragged me off at the precise moment I should have been going to look for him."
"It was necessary," Caterpillar replied. "Or don't you see the destruction around you?"
"I see it fine. But he's risking destruction too. You're my own personal soothsayer – surely you know what will happen if Jack Splatter catches him."
"Yes – but first, he must catch him," Caterpillar said in that faux-wise tone that had always gotten up her nose. "If you hadn't been sure of his escape, no amount of dragging could have brought you here. And if you had resisted, the state of your consciousness would hardly be worth mentioning. And that would have hurt the both of you. If I may paraphrase Cheshire, Victor would rather you battle your demons than fall to them."
Alice sighed, the worst of her anger draining away. "Right. I know. But you can't stop me from worrying."
"I wouldn't dream of it. It's proof that you've already learned that the world does not revolve around you. But your journey has only just begun! Consider the cause of all this chaos, Alice! Then come and join me."
The last wisps of white sailed off into the sky. Alice nodded, running the back of her hand across her forehead. " Right. The sooner I do as you ask, the sooner I can get home and apologize," she mumbled. "I'll be right there, you smushy layabout. And you'd better have more for me than platitudes."
". . .First off, when you say 'Come and join me' in such a portentous tone, you shouldn't be holed up on the island just ahead. Secondly, hiding out in the one spot the Ruin hasn't found yet makes you a hypocrite of some sort, I'm sure of it. Even Cheshire deigns to venture into danger briefly to speak with me."
"If you can desire to escape the Train, so can I," Caterpillar retorted from the tiny brass temple atop the miniature mountain before her. "And while a journey of a thousand miles may start with a single step, I doubt you actually wanted to go a thousand miles just to find me."
"It feels like I have," Alice muttered, leaning back on her heels as she crouched in the last remaining patch of green in the Vale. Around her, the rest of the world was a screaming maelstrom, earth and stone being sucked into the churning whirlpool that dominated the sky. But here, it was quiet and still. Maybe the high spire of rock at their left, with Caterpillar's ever-present hookah smoke curling up it, served as a storm break of sorts. Or perhaps the Train simply hadn't passed close enough yet to swallow it up in black oil. Whatever the reason, it was heartening to see that there was a piece of her beloved Wonderland that hadn’t yet been destroyed. The emerald moss, the little blue waterfall, even Caterpillar's retreat of rough-hewn jade and cleverly-shaped china . .it all gave her hope that, one day, all the Vale could look like this again. And given the madness I've just had to pass through, I need all the hope I can get. "I thought you were in charge of the Mushroom of Life," she added, trailing her fingers through the little lake that surrounded them.
"This is not the first upheaval Wonderland has suffered as of late," Caterpillar replied. "The Woods where that grew exists only in your memory now – and a very poor memory it is too."
"Now look here, I've been doing my best to find every shining bauble Wonderland leaves for me," Alice said, jabbing her finger at the temple roof.
"Even so, you're not the girl you were in the asylum. I wish we could say we were solely the better for it." Another wisp of sweet-smelling smoke drifted out of the temple windows. "But onto more immediate business. You are familiar with the saying that smoking stunts your growth?”
Alice rolled her eyes. “Adults assault children with that adage – usually while they’ve got a pipe stuck in their mouths.” Not that she’d ever been interested in smoking anyway. The cigars favored by some of Papa’s colleagues had always smelled horrible to her, and by Lizzie’s own admission, cigarettes were “no fun at all.” And any mild intrigue the pipe might have held for her had been kicked out of her mind by Victor's stories of Mayhew and his constant choking cough. Not for me – well, except when I'm forced to puff on hookahs for directions, she amended. Speaking of which – “I see you’ve kept the best tobacco for yourself, incidentally. The stuff you made me suck down was rancid.”
“If you hadn’t waited a month to return and finish what you started, it might have been fresh,” Caterpillar shot back. “As it is, I won’t ask you to inhale this.” Rings of wispy white began flowing from the temple roof, encircling her head and moving downward. “Just let the smoke envelop you.”
Alice watched the rings slide down her body, turning from halos to necklaces to belts to anklets before dissipating just in time for the next one to arrive. For a moment, she couldn't work out the purpose of their slow descent – then she happened to glance up at the "mountain" again. Slowly but surely it was getting taller. “I can shrink on my own now, you know,” she said, frowning. “Can’t we talk while I’m at my right proper–”
A massive shadow fell over the grove as the Train thundered through again, spreading another layer of Ruin across the Land. Alice shuddered. “Never mind. Continue as planned.” Maybe if she was the size of an ant, she wouldn't have to deal with more of those creepy slimes for a while.
Down, down, down – and then, the world was nothing but white as the smoke swallowed her up in a cloud. Alice coughed and shut her eyes tightly, waiting for the fog to pass. When she opened them again, she found herself standing on a jade island in the middle of the tiny lake – although at her new size, it could now only be described as the vastest of oceans. Even the purple pool in the Vale of old hadn't stretched that large when she'd gained the ability to halve her height. Curious, Alice hiccuped, and found the world lavender-tinted and even larger than before. "Shrinking while shrunk – typical Wonderland," she said fondly, popping back to her new "regular" size.
She turned her gaze to the landscape, wondering what challenges lay ahead. Surrounding her was a whole archipelago of jade and stone, decorated with pots and paper balloons, and all clustered around the base of the mountain. Carved bridges and floating mahjong tiles provided paths from one isle to the next, while smoking incense pots and beautifully-painted vases jutted out of the green rock before her, sharing space with half-formed dragons, flowers, and fans. The sky above was calmer than the Vale of Doom's, but still a dismal gray. Chinese characters fell from it in torrents of black and red, spelling out stories Alice hadn't a hope of deciphering. And high above it all, only visible if you squinted hard, was the rocky crag that made up the top of the mountain, shrouded in storm clouds and smoke. “You couldn’t put me at the top, Caterpillar? Of course you couldn’t,” Alice answered herself. “It wouldn’t be Wonderland if I didn’t have to do things the hard way.”
One last thing to check before she started. A quick glance down – and yes, just as she'd suspected. Bright blue had been traded for deep navy this time, printed with multicolored flowers and butterflies. As befitted her current location, the new dress fastened in a wrap-around style like a kimono, with a large pink sash to hold it closed. Matching pink wrist guards, a narrow porcelain-like apron, and Hollow Ives in the form of a green oni mask completed the look. “At least you gave me a pretty gown. Would have preferred a katana to go with it, but. . . .”
Well, she could only work with what she had. If she had to climb this stupid piece of rock to get a straight answer out of her Oracle, she would. As she'd said before, she would not be conquered, not even by a friend. She jumped to the nearest mahjong tile and began planning her route, wondering just how rude it would be to greet Caterpillar with a Hobby Horse straight to his smug face.