Chapter 15: Ascent To The Peak
"Ugnh – ooof – you're sure this is a test of mental fitness?"
"It's the one all of our greatest scholars have passed," the Ant Elder said from his perch on the jade nearby. " The moving of the blocks is almost unnecessary. To see the dragon as whole, even when it is scattered – that is proof of a mind able to do the impossible!"
He sounded so proud that Alice couldn't bring herself to admit that she found the puzzle to be pathetically easy – at least in theory. Which way the blocks should go to form a complete dragon was obvious. It was shoving them into place that was the tricky bit. She pressed her shoulder against the chunk with the head and pushed hard, forcing it past its neighbors. "Yes, this is definitely what proves my worth as the savior," she muttered as she moved to the next. “Not the fact that I was able to defeat a huge wasp covered in thick armor and wielding a wicked staff able to knock me off my feet from a good couple of yards away. Sliding picture puzzles, that’s the ticket. Why, if only we'd had one in Heart Palace – the Queen would have had to surrender her crown once I impressed her with my mental might.”
Still, when it came down to it, she'd much rather be arranging blocks at the will of an elderly bit of origami than trading katana and Hobby Horse blows with the Samurai Wasps. The raiders of this realm were vicious indeed, hiding their bug-eyed (ha) heads behind fearfully-grinning masks and darting to and fro almost as fast as she could dodge. "Almost" being the key word – once Alice had realized they genuinely weren't quick enough to catch her in butterfly form, she'd readily handed them their stingers. Even their leader – a Daimyo, if she remembered Radcliffe's babbling about the different ranks of warriors right – hadn't been too hard once she'd stunned him with a blast of green tea. Their real advantage seemed to be in numbers – if you saw one, you knew there were another two behind you, ready to strike. But Alice was used to such tactics by now, and didn't let it slow her down in the slightest. Even so, I'm not looking forward to future battles. If they start teaming up with Ruins, things could get very tricky very quickly indeed. I can't afford to get complacent – the ants can attest to that.
A painful shudder went up her spine as she recalled the carnage that had greeted her when she’d first entered their village. Blood splattered across the pale sands, fragile paper bodies impaled on vicious spikes, screaming heads torn from their owners – and worst of all, every tiny boxy home transformed into a charred husk. A few had even been burning still, hungry flames consuming the ivory parchment walls and spitting out ebony ash. She’d run past those as quick as her legs could carry her. Even inside their temple, the one safe place anyone should have, corpses had littered the floor, with the wounded lying nearby, groaning in agony or praying desperately to their elegantly-folded statue of Caterpillar for relief. Some had claimed her heart was made of stone, but even one of purest marble would have gone out to these creatures. Not to mention they’re the first to treat me with any sort of respect around here, she thought, finally locking the last block into place. No demands for this or that, no complaints on how I’m doing my job – just “savior” and “benefactor” right off the bat. Well, mixed with "rash" and "imprudent," but I won't quibble. It’s nice to be appreciated for a change. Even if it does mean solving silly little block puzzles. "I'm done!"
The Elder peered at her work, then clapped his hands. "You can save us! I'll open the path!" He waddled over to something hidden behind a slab covered in decorative swirls, and soon after the mahjong tile gate swung open. "My brother awaits you at the entrance to our sacred cave!"
"I'll try not to keep him long," Alice promised, rubbing her aching arm. "You should probably go and help with the wounded. They need someone who knows and thinks things."
"Ah, yes, quite." The Elder turned to go, then held up one hand in warning. "But be careful – the way is not always clear, and a nasty fall waits those who cannot see!"
Alice gave him a grin. "You'll find this dress of mine quite talented in that regard." Waving goodbye, she jogged through the simple wooden doors.
The gravel crunching under her feet quickly gave way to the clack of more jade. Not much more, though – down a short flight of steps, the ground terminated in a large open ledge. Alice pulled up short at the edge, staring down into the dark waters what felt like miles below. "Last I checked, 'not always clear' was not a synonym for 'not there,'" she mumbled. Then her eye caught a pot inked with blue clouds hovering not far underneath her, steam gushing from its depths, and she grinned again. "And it seems it still isn't. Now, how do I – oh, wait, wait, Alice. You know what happens if you just rush through a place." Turning on the spot like a peculiar ballet dancer, she examined her surroundings for any hint of concealed paths or suspicious-looking china shards.
Sure enough, past a stand of rolled-paper bamboo edging a dark rock wall was a tiny hole of light. Alice headed straight for it, to find a keyhole set into the gemstone crag. Wonderful, she thought, shrinking with a hiccup to fit through the miniscule opening. Hopefully some teeth will be hiding at the end of this – my Teapot Cannon could use one of Yves’s upgrades. Or maybe a bit of meta-essence to refresh myself before going forward? I'm not feeling totally myself after all those katanas biting into my flesh. Ugh, if only I had some of the poison I use to keep the rats at bay back home. A good coating on my Vorpal Blade and Hobby Horse and I could take them down in one hit, I bet.
She wound her way down the tube of porcelain, eventually ending up in a somewhat-claustrophobic round chamber. Dominating the tiny area was a statue of a woman barely covered by a fold of green cloth, her naked breasts on full display. Streaks of bright red trailed down her cheeks, and her mouth was twisted as if in pain. Alice's stomach turned upon seeing her. What on earth was such a disturbing decoration doing here? Was it somehow related to the prostitutes she saw desperately plying their trade all over Whitechapel? Radcliffe did tend to bring up thoughts of her Nanny these days (your taste in men, even as temporary companions, leaves much to be desired, Madam Sharpe). . .but no, something about this scene poked at a deeper part of her brain. Something to do with – with – sleep-talking? A nightmare she'd overheard? Well, Lizzie's room was pretty near mine. . .it must have been an awful dream indeed, what with the sick taste on my tongue.
She shook off the – geisha? She was pretty sure that was the right word – the geisha's attempt at probing her mind, and directed her gaze elsewhere. A couple of peaches, a paper balloon, and – a glittering syringe floating at the statue’s base. Rutledge? Why would this woman be standing sentinel over a memory from – Oh God. I – I know those brutish nephews of the superintendent tried to take – “liberties” with me once, but I don’t remember them succeeding. . .but that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? I don’t remember. And I’m not sure I want to.
She rocked on her heels before the memory for a good two minutes, trying to decide whether or not it would be truly detrimental to her journey to leave this one behind. The simple, bone-deep curiosity that was such a part of her won the day – that and the desire to know whether or not a certain pair of twins needed new holes stuck in them. Taking a deep breath, she darted in and tapped it.
One small suitcase. That was it. That was the sum and total of her entire life to date – one small, battered suitcase.
Alice sighed as she looked at the meager possessions packed into the luggage's shallow mouth. This was – this was pathetic. A decade ago, she'd had a roomful of toys, a closet almost bursting with clothes, and all sorts of other little fiddly bits and bobs that she'd never properly appreciated. She'd just assumed they'd always be there, at least until she grew up and moved into her husband's house. And then of course a few items would be traveling with her, to help her set up her own home. The notion that she might not always have her books or dolls or favorite blue and white stockings hadn't even crossed her mind. But then the fire had come, eating everything up, straight down to her father's fabled brick. . .and now. . . .
She sorted through her packing, just to make sure she'd really grabbed it all. One ugly green dress the color of pond slime, procured by Witless. The other, a black-and-white number she actually kind of liked, hung on the door for tomorrow. Next to it was the ratty red coat the old nurse had found – a poor fit, but Alice would take what she could get. One raggedy apron, also courtesy of the night nurse. Two pairs of gray stockings. A set of underthings. A journal graciously given to her by Dr. Wilson, who’d included the various sketches she’d made during her last year of confinement. Two pencils gifted to her by Nurse D-. And a single handkerchief sent from Nanny. Alice folded that up and put it neatly atop the bloomers. Two changes of clothes, a notebook, and a couple of writing implements. That was the extent of what she owned – excepting Mr. Bunny, of course. Alice picked him up from beside her pillow and gave him a hard squeeze. Nurse D- had offered to repair his missing eye again, but Alice had politely refused. The lost button, burst stitches, and worn fabric were battle scars, much like the ones she wore. Having him be a mess too made her feel a little less alone in the world. "Don't worry – you don't have to go in there until right before we leave," she whispered in his floppy, slightly-charred ear. "We've still got one last night in this horrible place, and I refuse to face it without a friend."
Mr. Bunny didn't reply (he hadn't said anything since she'd defeated the Queen and restored Rabbit, which she was hoping was a good sign), but his simple solidness against her chest was comfort enough. She put him back in his usual place and closed the lid on the suitcase. One more day, and then she'd be free. Well, free in the sense of attending therapy in an orphanage instead of a madhouse. But there would be no more straitjackets, or leather straps, or spoons being shoved down her throat. Freedom enough for her, honestly. She clicked the locks into place and set the bag down by the door for easy pickup once the morning came.
As she did, she heard a soft buzz of conversation filtering through the heavy wood. Curious, she stood on tiptoe to peek through the barred window. Dr. Wilson was walking up her hall, talking to someone she didn’t recognize. She squinted at the stranger. He had a doctor-y look about him – glasses, beard, and a good suit ill-suited for his surroundings. Most likely a colleague who worked in another part of the asylum. “. . .she is certainly ill,” Dr. Wilson said as they came close enough to be understood, inclining his head at her cell. Alice ducked out of sight, not wishing to catch their interest and interrupt. “She imagines odd things.”
Certainly ill? Imagines odd things? Coldness invaded Alice's belly, as if she'd swallowed the Ice Wand. Oh no – was Dr. Wilson changing his mind about releasing her? Did he still consider her too sick in the head to mingle with “normal” people? She was trying so hard to ignore the strange visions, to act like everyone else. . . . Was freedom going to be torn away before she could even get her fingers around it? Breathing quickly, she pressed her ear firmly against the door, not wanting to miss a single word.
“And she has a hero complex: an inherent desire to help others, being unable to help herself,” the psychiatrist continued on, blissfully unaware the subject of his talk was eavesdropping. “And a compulsion to make the world right. She’s trying to ‘unlock’ the true meaning of her life – and she doesn’t know who has the key.”
"Do you think she’ll ever find it?” the other man asked. Alice thought she detected a note of apprehension in his voice, as if he was worried about just what “key” it was she was looking for. I wonder if he’s heard the story of the spoon. I’ve no intention of trying to unlock anyone’s arteries, sir – not with liberty just a breath away.
"I’ve been in charge of Alice for ten years, Dr. Bumby,” Dr. Wilson replied. “Nine of which were spent in a fruitless struggle to make her respond to any sort of stimuli. Treatment after treatment attempted and failed. And then, over the course of a twelvemonth, she travels into this mental realm called 'Wonderland,' fights monsters and demons incomprehensible to a sane mind, and has herself up, walking, and talking as well as you or me by the end. She may not be completely ‘cured,’ but she’s well enough for the outside world." Alice smiled in relief. "So yes, I think she may yet find her key – but I advise you not to rush her. When she does things, she does them on her own time.”
“Hmph – advice you should have taken to heart, Dr. Bumby,” Alice grumbled as the padded walls of her room darkened back into the gloomy stone of the cavern. “Instead of forcing me on pills and whatnot. Though I suppose there’s a bit of irony in me needing a key to my life, and you just happening to have one available for my hypnosis sessions.” Her lips pursed thoughtfully. “Is this the memory behind my sudden obsession with it? Did I see it in Rutledge? It would explain a lot. . . .”
But even as the words passed her lips, she knew that wasn’t the answer. Bumby’s favorite hypnotizing implement hadn’t been visible during that brief glimpse she’d had of her new doctor through the door’s window. Nor could she remember seeing it when he'd come in to introduce himself – or even when she'd first arrived at Houndsditch and been forced to give up the cat who'd been a stalwart companion outside her window during her confinement. Maybe it was simply the wording Dr. Wilson had used. . .ugh, but the object itself seemed more familiar by the day, taunting her, teasing her. . . .
“Argh!” Alice raked her fingers through her hair, trying to scratch the irritation from her skull. “What is wrong with me? It's a key! I must have seen dozens in my lifetime! There's no reason for me to think of that one as more familiar than any other! Normal people don't develop baffling obsessions over random household objects, brain!"
The reminder that, after almost a year in Bumby's care, she'd really done nothing but backslide made her even more annoyed with everything. She took out her feelings on the peaches and box, then left the geisha to weep her bloody tears. "'Unlock the true meaning of my life. . .' Forget 'meaning,' all I want is a life," she grumbled as she made her way back to the windy pot. "Who gives tuppence about great truths when you can't even get through one day without worrying about talking flowers and cats that aren't there?" Hop on the six swords tile, then drop into the whoosh of steam. "All I want is to stay out of that accursed asylum and have the same problems ordinary people do. The worst ordeal of my life should be figuring out what to make for supper." Into another gust of steam, drop down on a woman-faced tile. "I've no trouble with gathering up memories of my family, but why in God's name are these tidbits from Wilson or Witless or even Bumby so important? Can’t I just be left alone, to struggle and survive like everyone else in Whitechapel?" Jump onto a spiky-box tile, ride it round until it met its twin, then switch and ride that to the next ledge. "I was getting rather good at it, I thought.”
There was indeed another Elder over here, waiting by a toothy stone face set into the jade. "The chosen one! The wicked wasps lay siege above us, and control the peaks to East and West," he said as she approached. "You must defeat them to reach Caterpillar's retreat!"
"Retreat is right," Alice muttered, folding her arms. "Still, I suppose I must go to the mountain top, as it won't come to me."
The Elder's beard swayed. "Don't be faint of heart. We have faith that Caterpillar, the strange and wondrous, helps those in need. One day, we'll have proof."
All right, that got a smile out of her. "He's more for talking than doing, but he can give good advice, I'll grant you that." She fiddled with her wrist guard. "I'm more touched by the faith you all have in me. We've only just met, and already everyone seems more or less convinced I'm the one to save you all." She tilted her head. "Are you familiar with the Torch Gnomes?"
"Stories spread," was the Elder's rather enigmatic reply. "And you have proven your worth with blade and thought. We are not the only ones who see you as special. Even in your other world, there are those who recognize your power."
Alice snorted. "Really. Dr. Wilson may have said that I have a hero complex, but I can't think of anyone who sees me as such. The children mock me, Witless considers me a meal ticket, Bumby gets more frustrated with my antics by the day, and–"
"Here you are, Alice. I – I hope you like it."
"Victor, you've given me at least half a dozen drawings by now, and have I said I disliked any of them? ” Alice replied, shaking her head as she accepted the paper. "I thought you agreed that you had tal-ent. . . ."
Her voice faded away as she got a proper look at the scene her friend had drawn. "Yes, ah – I took some liberties with the steam," Victor confessed, hovering over her like an anxious pink-cheeked hummingbird. "It – it just seemed right. . .I hope it doesn't look silly to you."
Alice ran her fingers over the ink lines that curled from her paper-self's shoulders, spreading out and swirling into a suggestion of wings. "Not at all," she said, glad her voice didn't sound as choked as she feared it would. " Wonderful job as always , Victor. Thank you."
She bit her lip. ". . .and Victor's more my hero than I'm his."
"Even modesty can come in too large a dose," the Elder replied, jabbing a hand at her chest. "If he works to save you, isn't it in part because you've done the same for him?"
Alice pondered that. Lately, all she'd been able to think about was how she was running him ragged trying to keep her from accidentally killing herself, but. . .before all this nonsense had started, she had done a lot to help Victor adjust to his life in Whitechapel, hadn’t she? A friendly greeting on first arrival, snippets of advice doled out when necessary, protecting his piano time and inspiring his artistry. . .little things here and there to keep him happy and safe. A compulsion to at least make his world right. And she could already imagine his thoughts on the subject: “You and the children may argue a lot, but you still tell them stories, and you almost never slack in your duties to them. I know you don’t want them to suffer like you did. Your sessions with Bumby are an endless source of frustration – and believe me, I understand why – but you never deliberately shirk his therapy. Witless – all right, she's a berk, but you could be a lot worse to her. And what about Wonderland? You’re constantly complaining about how all the inhabitants do their best to get under your skin, either figurative or literally, and yet look at you now. Firmly engaged in a fight to save it, to the point of willingly abandoning the real world, despite all your protests that you’d never do such a thing. I wish you'd at least waited to do so until I caught up and could look after you, but. . .what do you suppose that says about you?”
Her lips quirked upward. "All right, maybe it's not so unbelievable to call me 'hero.' Though how heroic can I be when it's my own mind that I'm saving. . . . But I'm determined to see this through until the end," she assured the Elder.
"Excellent," the Elder said, clapping his hands. "Purity of heart is to will one thing. Your heart is pure indeed. But to approach Caterpillar's sacred aerie, you must confront the savage Daimyos, who prevent our access to his power."
"Elder, if there is one thing I am good at, it's booting creatures' nether regions," Alice smirked, pulling out her Blade briefly for emphasis. "And I'd love to prove Wilson and Bumby and all the rest who think I can't help myself wrong."
The Elder nodded and crawled out of the way. "Then I'll open the entrance to the Sacred Cave, where your journey begins."
One complicated motion of his hands later, the hunk of stone blocking the face's mouth slid away. Alice bowed politely to the Elder before sliding in down the tongue. "All right, 'hero,' she murmured as she dropped into the cave. "Time to show them – and yourself – what you're really made of."
“Hmm. Either my subconscious really is much more sympathetic to Nanny and Splatter's workers than I thought, or you're meant to represent something else and the eternal riddle of this realm will be to figure out what.”
The geisha statue didn’t reply, frozen with her hand pressed against her pale face. Alice regarded it with hands on hips, trying to puzzle out its purpose. This was just the latest in a series of sister statues that had been popping up here and there ever since her first encounter in the cave. And while no two were completely identical, they all shared a pair of common themes – a cloth covering that still left large portions of their anatomy bare, and an expression of intense sadness and pain. This one lacked the bloody "tears" common to most of her companions, but her eyes were clearly screwed up in silent weeping nonetheless. Perhaps they're creations of the Origami Ants, Alice theorized, kicking little splashes of water over the woman's legs. Their sadness and grief made porcelain “flesh.” But if that's the case, why on earth is so much skin exposed? The ants shouldn't have any concept of nakedness – their clothes are their bodies. Surely if they made them, every one of these girls would be fully dressed. No, my first guess is probably right – this is from me, and it's about every girl I've seen either having to ply her trade or fend off assault. Have I really gotten so used to sexual violence outside our door that it’s become a permanent part of my mental landscape? She cringed, quietly disgusted with herself. Lovely. Oh, how I wish I could turn back the clock and see the Wonderland that was nothing but simple childish innocence. . . .
Well, that wasn't going to happen anytime soon. This particular section of the mountain was more cheerful than the last, with its blue-painted china trees and water-spilling pots, but the presence of the Wasps ruined the illusion of tranquility. But tranquility wasn't what had drawn her to this damp island anyway. The crystal butterfly that revolved slowly above the pool’s surface – that was what had grabbed her attention as she'd floated over, ready to wash herself off after her last battle. "Though you're a mystery in yourself, you know," Alice informed the delicate creature as she splashed her way over. “Victor told me long ago his mother was never one for collecting Eastern art, and I never discussed Radcliffe much with him. So why have you chosen to appear now?”
The sun glittered on the butterfly's wings, as if telling her to "break me and see." Shrugging, she brought her fingers to the crystal’s surface.
The tanned hand stretched toward her, a tiny jade figure resting on its palm.“Miss! Miss! Dragon charm!" a hopeful if heavily-accented voice said. "Bring much luck!”
“Not in my case – I’ve had terrible experiences with dragons,” Alice said, shaking her head as the crude serpentine figure took on the proportions of the Jabberwock.
"Dog then? Loyalty assured!"
"I've got that already," Alice chuckled, glancing at Victor. He smiled back, rubbing the back of his neck.
The man turned to him. "Sir? Charm?"
"I'm sorry, but no," Victor said, holding up a hand. "None of the figures really strikes my fancy. Thank you anyway."
The charms man sighed and retreated beneath the brim of his wide hat, rearranging the crude animals on his table. “I thought you might have taken the dragon,” Alice commented as they continued down the street. “You've mentioned in the past you've imagined a few as pets.”
"From what I understand, Oriental dragons are more inclined to nap in rivers than chew up your worst childhood bully," Victor replied, making her snicker. Dropping his voice, he added, "Besides, they weren't really very good, were they?"
"Not really," Alice admitted, glancing behind her. "That dog was barely more than a stone hit once or twice with a chisel. But I'm sure someone will throw sixpence his way. After all, he's 'exotic,' and as we all know, exotic – oh!"
Alice darted across the street, charms forgotten. "Victor! Come look at this!" she called, waving her friend over.
"What is it?" Victor asked, waiting for a couple of passing chickens before joining her.
"A stationer's shop, I think – I can't read the sign, obviously," Alice said, eyes flicking to the neatly-printed characters above the door. "But see what he's done with his window!"
The way Victor's eyes lit up as he took in the scene was a treat. "Oh my," he said, leaning up against the glass with her. "It's a little zoo!"
It was indeed – filling the window were carefully folded representations of almost any animal you could think of. Elephants with raised trunks paraded along the bottom pane, while monkeys hung from carefully folded trees along the sides. A tiger stalked an unsuspecting antelope on the left, and a dog herded multicolored sheep on the right. Above it all, birds soared against a backdrop of blue, joined by dragonflies and – "Butterflies!" Victor cried, thrilled. "Oh my, look at all those delicate folds! I wish I knew how to do it." His lips twisted into a self-deprecating smirk. "Though I'd probably go through a whole notebook of paper trying to get it right."
"I'm sure this fellow did the same when he was first starting out," Alice said, giving her friend a standard "stop putting yourself down" poke in the ribs. "But it is impressive, isn't it? I never knew origami could be so intricate."
"Hey! Stop smudging the glass!"
Alice and Victor jerked away. "That's for customers! If you're not going to buy, go away!" the owner continued, glowering under thick black brows.
"Fine, excuse us," Alice snapped back, taking Victor's hand and walking away. "A shame such lovely artwork would be connected to such a rotten personality."
"If he'd asked politely for us to stand back I might have gone in and seen what he had to offer," Victor agreed, frowning. "I am running low on ink."
"You'll just have to give an Englishman your money, then," Alice said, watching a passing couple jabbering away in some incomprehensible dialect. How can they keep it all straight in their heads? she wondered. It sounds an absolute mess of sound. . .I wonder if Radcliffe can speak any of it. He has to get his pots and swords from somewhere. A playful smirk crossed her lips. Heh, I bet his suppliers have taught him all sorts of terrible words and phrases just for the pleasure of laughing at him when he tries them out. It’s the sort of thing I would do. “Besides, we still need to find that medicine shop with the herbs Dr. Bumby wanted.”
"Right. . .I wonder what he wants them for,” Victor murmured, head tilted.
"Well, those from the Far East are supposed to be incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to medicine,” Alice said. “And one has to be willing to try any remedy to cure those with sick minds." She squirmed a little. "Not that I’d trust a race of people who believe sticking needles all over the body somehow makes one feel better.”
“Seriously? How on earth does that–” Victor made a face. "Oh, but I've heard much worse from party gossip. Did you know the Chinese elite bind the feet of their wives, to show they’re so well taken care of they don’t have to walk anywhere? Can you imagine that? It sounds like slow torture.”
And then the street flooded, washed away by the steady stream of water trickling out of one of the oversized vases hanging above her. Alice shuddered and rubbed her arms. Right, now she remembered – how could she have forgotten how cold the idea of purposely crippling a woman in the name of “status” had made her? “I don’t care if you’re a bit oversized compared to the rest of me,” she informed her own feet, safely encased in their sturdy black boots. “I very much appreciate the job you do. Being able to run and jump and kick things is a skill all feet should have.” She wriggled her toes. “I'm sorry I never kept my promise about giving you a new pair of boots every Christmas when I first had 'Eat Me' cake, but I simply don't have the funds for that now. Though perhaps I could manage a new pair of stockings this year. . .am I glad the English aren’t so backwards as to hobble their women!” she added, making a face. “Hearing from Lizzie how half the men of the college thought ladies should be little more than living ornaments was bad enough. Thank God Mother and Father never held with that nonsense. And that Victor doesn't either.”
And damn it, now she was worrying about him again. Caterpillar could reassure her all he liked about Wonderland releasing her should he be in real trouble, but – seriously, how would it know to do so? Wonderland's perceptions were hers, and her wandering flesh tended to avoid her best friend during these moments. She so wanted to believe he'd be there when she snapped out of this latest dream (if rightfully angry with her for entering it in the first place), but. . . . Splatter's worse than a hungry wolf when he's out for blood, she thought, kicking at the water again. Victor can't escape him forever. . .and what about Dr. Bumby? What if the letter authorizing "radical treatments" comes while I'm here? What if I come home to find him a drugged-up mess, with his memories of the Land of the Dead being pulled out his ears? Or. . .no, Alice, Victor's too posh to be threatened with Rutledge. . .I think. . . .
All this anxiety was turning into a stone in her belly. Alice bent down and washed her face to ease her mind. "He'll be fine," she murmured. "He's stronger than he thinks, smarter than Jack suspects, and just as stubborn as Bumby knows. Maybe me abandoning him in favor of my madness will finally push him to find that flat he likes to talk about. Or better yet, break with Dr. Bumby and his parents, leave Whitechapel once and for all, and go off to some new land to live. The Amazon would be quite nice this time of year, wouldn't it? If I'm lucky, he'll send me letters detailing his latest finds."
. . .Nope, that just made the internal rock larger. Alice sighed. She knew it was wicked of her to be happy that Victor had been exiled to Whitechapel, but – it was so nice to have someone to talk to. Someone understanding and respectful of her, even after her history had been laid bare. Someone who could weather the storms of her insanity and never give up hope that she'd recover. And someone who didn't just want her flat on her back with her legs spread. She rolled her eyes at that thought. She'd almost given up hope that any man beyond Dr. Bumby would see her as more than their next potential conquest. But Victor genuinely cared more about her mind than her pussy. Too rare a breed of gentleman by half. Perhaps, if I'm very lucky, after I beg his forgiveness for leaving him behind, he'll consent to me stowing away in his luggage for that trip to South America. It would be a marvelous adventure. She ran dripping fingers through her hair, plastering it to her head. No matter what happens or where he goes, though, I hope he remembers to stay in touch. Letters will be a poor substitute for the man himself, but. . .I’d miss him far too much otherwise.
She clapped her hands together, banishing the stone. That was quite enough feeling sorry for herself. Maybe if she sped up her travels through these lands, she'd wake to find herself still at Radcliffe's with only a few minutes having passed. If it had happened once, it could happen again, right? But first let's refresh myself with that Shrinking Violet up there, she thought, glancing at a nearby ledge. And that shard of china looks like it might hide a keyhole treasure. . . .
"Treasure" turned out to be a misnomer – while there was a memory inside the hidden space, it was just a snippet of Nanny musing about Radcliffe’s obsession with Ming pottery and Tokagowa Japan. Barely worth the time spent collecting it. The bounty of teeth from the pots that ringed the cave was much more welcome. Alice snatched them all up, then resumed her course: navigating invisible platforms, activating pressure pads, riding mobile mahjong tiles, and traversing floating wooden halls to the next bit of rock. As usual, there were more teeth and meta-essence to collect along the way (I'll consult with Yves about a Vorpal Blade upgrade soon), as well as a rather pompous memory from Radcliffe: “The conflagration’s point of origin was obvious. First the library caught fire; and it spread disastrously when the gas line exploded.” “Which I already knew from Hatter's Domain,” Alice grumbled as she crossed to the next elegantly-carved block jutting from the side of the mountain. “Why doesn’t someone tell me what supplied the fatal spark?”
She regretted her words the instant she landed. Waiting for her not two feet away was an all-too-familiar door, flames crackling behind its warped frame. Alice rocked on her heels, gathering up her courage to enter. Damn, did she hate these memories. The crystal houses could be good for a smile, depending on the subject matter, but the Liddell doors – well, they never had anything pleasant to tell her. A treacherous breeze stirred her hair, sending it flying about her face like she was back in the Deluded Depths. . .watching the log in the library fireplace flare up with evil intent as the bottom dropped out of her stomach. . . .
And then ghostly hands settled on her shoulders, and invisible fingers brushed her face. “Don’t let the Jabberwock win after he’s died,” a gentle voice whispered in her ear, soft and soothing.
Alice couldn't help but smile. Even when he wasn't actually there, Victor was being the best friend she'd ever had. “If only everyone I knew could be as good a cheerleader,” she murmured. “You could learn a thing or two about motivating speeches from him, Cat.” She tossed her hair out of her eyes. “As it is – nowhere to go but forward, dear Alice.” With two long strides, she reached the handle, pulled it open –
And found herself in her childhood bedroom, her younger self snoozing away against the pillows. Alice blinked, puzzled. Why was she here? The last two memories had taken place in the library – shouldn't she be where the mischief had started? Even after the explosion of the gas line, the fire had barely reached her room. It had been her foolish race down the blazing hall, chasing her terrified parents, that had led to a year's solitude in Littlemore Infirmary. What clues to her past could be found here? She scanned the room with a frown. Everything seemed to be order – fresh pencil scribbles tacked up on the wall; Mr. Bunny snug under her arm; a favorite fairy-tale book lying forgotten on the bedclothes; Dinah and her kittens meowing in the corn–
In her room.
You couldn't have stunned her more effectively if you'd dumped ice water over her head. Alice stood still as a statue, unable to move even as the smoke started curling across the floor, jolting Little Alice out of a sound sleep. “Dinah – Dinah saved my life,” she whispered as the cat let out a terrified “merow!” and darted across the rug, Snowdrop in her mouth and Kitty at her heels. "Dinah?" Little Alice said, squeezing Mr. Bunny tighter against her chest.
"Mrrr!" Dinah leapt onto the windowsill, leaving Snowdrop there as she jumped down again to fetch Kitty. Then she began pawing at the glass, wailing all the while. "Fire, Alice! Fire!" came from outside.
"Save yourself! Wake up, Lizzie!" Pounding, then a desperate rattling. ". . .Lizzie! Open the door!"
"The key, Lizzie! Unlock the door! You'll burn!"
Little Alice looked tempted to hide under her bedclothes until everything stopped being terrifying. A furious yowl from Dinah sent her scrambling to the window, shoving it open and letting a gust of cold air in. Dinah murred her discontent, then jumped outside, landing with a “fwump” in the snow. Two smaller "fwumps" followed as her kittens leapt after her. “I survived because – she showed me how to escape!”
Little Alice didn’t immediately follow her cat, however. "Mum? Dad?" she called, venturing timidly out into the smoke-choked hallway. Alice finally got her feet to move, trailing her younger self. She could just make out the blurry forms of her parents, racing back to their room. She reached out to stop Little Alice following, but her hand went right through the girl – sick and shaking, she turned away from the carnage to come –
Only for everything to abruptly reverse, sending her back to when she'd climbed the stairs to go to bed. She blinked rapidly, her brain scrambling to adjust. There was Little Alice, Dinah in her arms, kittens bounding about her feet. . .over here was Nanny, in her doorway, waiting to tuck her in. . .and on the side table, between her and Lizzie's room, there was her long-forgotten nightlight – the very same lamp accused of starting the fire! “I didn’t leave the lamp in the library, and Dinah didn’t knock it over! The lamp and Dinah were upstairs when I went to bed!” she cried as Little Alice passed her by. Then there was the sound of shattering glass, and the fire whooshed back in as the light disappeared, leaving a significantly blank spot. “Dinah was in the room with me when the fire started!”
"Get out, Alice!"
"Save yourself, Alice! Get out of the house!"
The stink of burning flesh – as Witless said, a truly unique scent – filled the room as the flames worked to claim their victims. Alice lunged at the nearest door as her younger self screamed –
And stumbled out the other side onto rock again, coughing and shaking like a leaf. She fell to her hands and knees, drinking in the fresh air and trying everything in her power not to cry. Well – I’m vindicated, she thought, running trembling fingers through her hair. Dinah in my room – I knew there was something wrong with that story! Cats are known for being tricky, but not even Cheshire's pulled off true bi-location yet! And my nightlight – it was always on the table in the upstairs hallway! I never touched the damn thing for fear of being left in the dark! There’s no way it could have been in the library!
Except – that it was.
So who brought it down there?
Alice gritted her teeth as she got back to her feet, swiping at her eyes. It had been bad enough when she’d thought her family had died by accident. Now, to consider the possibility someone had deliberately set her house ablaze. . .well, it made her blood boil. Something was truly rotten in the state of Oxford. And she was going to find out what. Look out, Caterpillar, she thought, running off to see what new obstacles surely lay in her path to the mountain’s top. You’re not going to get to play mysterious oracle this time.
Clank – scritch – screeekk – "For God's sake! What are these bars made out of?"
"It comes from a place of fire and wickedness, that's all we know!" the trapped Origami Ant said, desolate in the middle of his spiky prison.
"It seems made of pure evil to defend itself against my Vorpal Blade," Alice grumbled, testing the edge of her favorite weapon to make sure it was still sharp. "The Hobby Horse might do the trick, but I'm afraid if I hit too hard, I'd just send the entire thing toppling into the pit."
"That's what happened to Wu," another Ant in monk's robes said from a couple of cages away. He gestured toward the rusted remains dangling nearby. "The Wasps were teasing him, chawing on the sides with their wicked jaws, and. . . ." He brought his hand down in a sweeping arc. "Whoosh."
"How horrible," Alice said, feeling a wave of sympathy for the unfortunate Wu. "The Wasps grow crueler and crueler the closer I get to their nest, it seems."
"They are cruelty incarnate!" a second monk Ant declared from a prison bobbing gently above her head. “It’s not enough that they abuse and murder us – they let their spawn feed on our rotting corpses!”
"Eugh!" Alice rubbed her stomach. "Fortunate I haven't had anything to eat in a while!" She shook her head. "I'm sorry, I really am – I'd get you out if I could!"
“The cages aren’t so bad – it’s the jailers we wish were not here!” the fisherman below her said, crinkling his wide hat. “They call you ‘bloodthirsty’ and ‘murderer’ in the other world, do they not? Please, when it comes to the Wasps, live up to those names!”
“On them, my blade works just fine,” Alice assured him, allowing herself a slightly psychotic smirk. “I promise to show no mercy to those who remain.” Nor to Caterpillar, once I reach him, she added to herself. Especially if he tries to worm his way out of giving me answers via stale platitudes. Why do these Ants worship him so? If he was a real god, he'd come down among these monsters and help! Smoke is supposed to puzzle wasps, isn't it? Or am I thinking of bees. . .well, it's worth a try! He has to be at least three times the size of even a Daimyo – what could he have to fear from them?
"Well, I'll admit that even I'm not that fond of mosquitoes or wasps. Particularly this one species of the latter that lays its eggs on living caterpillars. The larvae burrow in, and feed on the caterpillar, slowly devouring it from the inside–"
"Hurk!" Yes, Victor, thank you for the entomology lesson, Alice thought as she fought back the dry heaves. That's one factoid I'd hoped to forget. But all right, I'll grant that Caterpillar has every reason to be in hiding now. Before she could stop herself, she pictured her friend lying helpless on the rocks, millions of squirming larvae chewing on his guts and bursting through his skin. . . . Another surge of hot bile seared her throat. "That better not be what's waiting for me at the top of the mountain," she muttered, rocking to and fro to soothe herself. " Geaaah. . . ."
Snorting and snuffling from somewhere nearby provided a welcome distraction from the horrors parading through her brain. Turning carefully on the cage top, she saw a stray pig snout mounted on the rocky cliff that helped wall in this prison, next to a pair of empty cages. “Ah – more meat for the Duchess’s larder,” she commented, bringing her Pepper Grinder to hand. “What shall her payment be this time, I wonder?” She aimed carefully (not an easy feat when you were standing on a surface that rose and fell continuously), and turned the crank as fast as she could, filling the snout with pepper until it seemed as if it would burst. “Come on, come on. . . .”
Aaaaah – CHOOOO! In a twinkling of blue light, the snout vanished, off to parts unknown. The cages swayed in the blast of pepper-scented wind, then abruptly dropped as their pulleys ran loose for a moment. Alice watched them carefully, expecting one to play host to a shiny golden basket soon.
But no – both tops and interiors stayed barren . Alice scowled. "Now see here, Duchess, we had an agreement! I'm supposed to get a reward for this nonsense!"
"What about the door?" the fisherman below her said, pointing to the ledge to their right.
"What do-oh!" Alice blushed as she spotted the hole in the stone, previously covered by a pair of china fish bound together in a green and white ying-yang symbol. "It must be in there. . .thank you, I don't think I would have noticed otherwise," she added, getting on her hands and knees so she could stick her head over the edge.
The little Ant beamed up at her. "Always a pleasure to help Alice the magnificent!” he said, giving her a polite bow.
Alice couldn’t help but preen. “You're all far too kind to me,” she said. "Please don't take that as encouragement to stop." Pulling herself back upright, she twirled her away across the cages and onto the ledge. Behind the open door was a shallow cave, and inside – no basket, but a pair of crystal glasses. “Oh damn – I was hoping for more teeth,” she muttered, disappointed. “If I could just afford that last upgrade for the Blade, maybe those cages would finally yield.”
Still, one had to work with what they were given. And she was curious about what sort of memory from Bumby lurked in a place like this. He's talked occasionally about Houndsditch being better than prison. . . . She touched the glasses and prepared herself.
“Shove off, you louses!"
"Give us a kiss first!" the dirtiest of the men replied, as his mates sniggered.
"How about one from my fist? A broken jaw would serve you right!"
The men didn't seem to consider this much of a threat – probably because there was no way for her to carry it out. "We just want ten minutes of your precious company," one told her, whistling with every "s" thanks to a lack of front teeth. "You can spare that, can't you?"
"We'll make it more than worth your while," another with a nose more crooked than his smile added.
All heads turned toward the Home's back door. Dr. Bumby stood there, radiating frost over the ancient wood. "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times – she's not for sale!" he continued, arms folded tightly across his chest.
"Oh come on, Bumby!" the dirty man snapped, as his friends grumbled. "Girl like this has to be worth a shilling or two!"
"She's worth far more than that, and more than you'll ever have," Dr. Bumby replied, glasses gleaming. He moved to the side. "Come in, Alice, before one of them tries something he may not live to regret."
" Thank you," Alice said with feeling as she pushed her way through the crowd. Fortunately, none of the men seemed in a grabby mood. "I wish they’d stop hanging around the back door!” she added once she was safely inside the Home. "Taunting me, trying to feel me up, asking how much for a night’s work – this is not a whorehouse!”
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Dr. Bumby said, glowering at the crowd as he shut them out. “You'd think eventually they'd get the message, but no. . . .” He suddenly smirked. “You know, I'm starting to wonder if one of them isn't sweet on you.”
"Sweet? Those dregs of humanity outside are nothing but sour,” Alice responded, making a face. “All they want is to get between my legs. Which is never going to happen!” she added in a louder tone, making sure the filth could hear her.
"Oh, fuck you!" one yelled (it sounded like the whistler) .
"You only wish!"
"Alice, don’t antagonize them,” Dr. Bumby scolded. "You don't want to know what they'll do if they're properly provoked." His voice changed, becoming more inquisitive. “Though – from a purely hypothetical standpoint – what if one of them really was in love with you? What would you do then?”
"Refuse him as politely as possible,” Alice replied, then rolled her eyes. “Or not so politely, as circumstances dictated. I'm not going to fall at the feet of anyone like that lot.”
"What about someone else, then – someone who didn't smell as if he'd been bathing in the sewer? Someone debonair and charming?" Dr. Bumby pressed. "Who declared his affections for you every chance he got, privately and publicly? Showered you with attention? Gave you flowers, chocolates, expensive presents?”
Alice arched an eyebrow. This conversation was taking a very weird turn. “I don't think I'm likely to meet anyone like that while living here,” she said, wondering what on earth had gotten into her psychiatrist. "And while I won't say no to flowers and chocolates, it would take much more than that to sweep me off my feet." She smiled as her thoughts drifted toward a slice of cake eagerly enjoyed earlier in the month. “Besides, the best presents needn’t be expensive at all.”
Bumby smiled back . “True enough. The most romantic gestures are deeply personal, in my admittedly limited experience. Flowers and chocolates aren’t enough to win a true lady’s affections. You need something much more intimate. ” He looked off into the distance, as if watching some far-away memory play behind his glasses. “Lovers often exchange a lock of hair to symbolize their vows. The human heart is opened by a vast assortment of keys.”
"Yes, well, this particular heart is locked up rather tight,” Alice said, rolling her eyes again. Oh, lovely – her doctor had a touch of the hopeless romantic about him. How wonderful. He'd better not start nattering on like a cheap romance novel's male lead. “You needn’t worry that I’ll run off with some lovesick young man before my therapy’s done.”
Dr. Bumby turned back to her, grinning in a way that seemed somehow – possessive. “I’m very glad to hear that, Alice.”
And with that, the walls of Houndsditch returned to being dull gray stone. Alice shivered as she came back to herself. What a peculiar memory to find within a prison camp. . .and she had to admit, the way he'd looked at her at the end still gave her a bit of the creeps. She couldn't pin down precisely why, though. She knew from experience Bumby was incapable of looking pleased in a way that didn’t make you want to punch him. And it wasn't like she was the only one to receive that "you're mine" smile – Victor had complained about it enough. Maybe it was just the context – escaping from that refuse collection out the back, only to get such a similar smirk from someone who was supposed to help her. Not to mention its arrival after such a puzzling conversation. Shouldn't her psychiatrist already know that no one would ever want to court the madwoman? Especially men who were quite vocal about their real interests in her?
On the other hand, looking back at it, I don't think he was actually worrying about my prospects at all, Alice thought, rocking on her heels. Something about the idea of one of them being "sweet" on me must have brought up a painful memory of a past failed romance of his own. He's dropped a tidbit or two about having loved and lost sometime in the past. . . . Hmm, you'd think someone who espouses the philosophy of "eliminating painful memories" so loudly and often would use his techniques on himself. Though maybe it's like me with my family – a few painful twinges now and then are worth all the good times. Still, you'd think he'd at least wipe away the break-up. . .I wonder just whose heart it was that he failed to unlock ?
"My heart is open, Alice. Never closed, never locked. It needs no key.”
Alice froze on her tiptoes, blinking. What the – now why had that memory chosen to come back to her? Lizzie's little comment was all the way back from Hatter’s Domain! Must be my mind’s ridiculous obsession with keys again, she decided, shaking her head. Here a key, there a key, everywhere a bloody key! How about you stop showering me in keys and instead start directing me to their locks? She smirked. Though I guess that proves one thing – Dr. Bumby wouldn’t have had much luck with my sister. No silliness about needing to unlock her heart – however she felt about you, she was very vocal about it. And flowers, chocolates, and presents – expensive or inexpensive – wouldn’t have helped him either. God knows the undergraduates all learned that lesson quickly! She furrowed her brow. . . .Come to think of it, Bumby’s the right age to have attended Oxford while my father was Dean, isn’t he? I wonder if he – no, he would have mentioned if I’d known him in childhood. He probably went to Cambridge or some smaller school in London.
Still, it was funny to think that Bumby and her sister could have been contemporaries. Alice snickered over the image of Lizzie dumping a pot of cold tea over the doctor's head. “She'd never approve of your pills and extra sessions, my dear sir,” she commented as she exited the cave. “You’re lucky you’ll never have to meet her.”
“Beg pardon?” the first of the monk ants called.
"What was the treasure in the secret cave?" the fisherman added, eagerly hanging onto the honeycomb bars.
“Nothing that special,” Alice called back, hopping back onto one of the empty cages. "Just a bit of silliness about love and keys."
“Oh – from your Victor?”
Alice, knees flexed for the next jump, stopped and straightened. “What? No. . . .” This again? Why on earth did everyone here keep referring to Victor as hers? She thought of him as a puppy sometimes, granted, but she hadn't gone full-out with putting a collar and leash on him yet. And what did he have to do with hearts and keys? He wasn’t a rake playing Casanova with every woman he met – quite the opposite, in fact. He'd never tried to attract any female company while stuck in Whitechapel, and his history secured his claim on the title "Master of the Failed Romance." It was likely after all that nonsense he'd stay a bachelor for life. "Dr. Bumby, actually."
"Oh." The fisherman actually sounded disappointed. "I thought. . .I haven't heard a good love poem in weeks."
"Victor's more an artist than a poet," Alice corrected him. "And besides, he's just a friend!"
"That means he can't be yours?"
"I – hmmm." Alice glanced up at the dragon-carved beam supporting her cage. The little Ant brought up an interesting point there. Victor received a lot of privileges she wouldn't bestow on anyone else – long stories about her childhood and family, forgiveness for his unthinking comments about Bumby's treatment or anything to do with fire, purely-friendly teasing – and most surprising of all, her permission to touch her more than was absolutely necessary. Hell, she'd grown to quite enjoy his hugs. And yet he'd managed to completely bugger up her first impression of him – how had she gotten from the point of wanting to deck him for his stories about the Land of the Dead to wanting to see it for herself?
His tolerance for the unusual was certainly a large part of it. Alice suspected this was as much a weird sort of rebellion against his home village's closed-in nature as a natural part of him, but she liked it just the same. He didn't like everybody, of course, but he did at least give them a chance. He'd certainly given her more of one than most anyone else had. Not even Dr. Wilson, who'd been drawn so deep into her stories of Wonderland in Rutledge, had ever tried interacting with one of her hallucinations like Victor had. And his patience for her less-sane moments seemed to be infinite. But there was more to it than that. Maybe it was the bright enthusiasm for art and music and science that shone just underneath his dull surface. Or the fact that whenever he said something hurtful, she knew immediately he didn’t mean it (even without the barrage of apologies that followed). Or maybe. . .maybe it was the way he seemed to smile sometimes for her and her alone. Like she was someone special, despite all evidence to the contrary. You know, I bet that’s why Victoria and Emily fell for him so quickly, she realized, touching her chest. He may not be the most suave of men, but – you never doubt that he cares about you. Even during his stupider moments. Her lips quirked upward. Maybe – maybe it’s not so bad to refer to him as mine. Strictly in the platonic sense of course. He has even less of a chance of seeing me romantically than those louts outside the back door. Even with offering piano lessons, and dancing together, and. . . .
Well, that was making her unaccountably depressed. Alice shoved the slowly-growing gloom aside. Who cared how Victor saw her, as long as he stood by her side? "I guess it doesn't, but we shouldn't be wasting time pondering my love life – or lack thereof," she told her conversational partner. "The top of the mountain was calling."
"Ah yes! You still have miles to go before you sleep!" the monk above her head agreed.
"Oh, hopefully not that far," Alice said, squinting up at the peak. So close now she could almost taste it. . . . She gave all the trapped Ants an encouraging wave. "Stay strong, and try not to let them bully you too much!"
"Be careful in their nest!" the first monk called as the others waved back. "The Empress does not make her home there, but the strongest of their Daimyo does!"
"I'll beat him like all the others!" Alice bounced her way across the cages and into a convenient pot of steam. “And I promise – once I talk with Caterpillar and find the answers I seek, I will get all of you back to your homes!”
The ants cheered, waving their feelers and crying things like “Alice the Beneficent” and “Alice the Marvelous.” Feeling light as a feather from all the praise, Alice soared her way to the top of the cliff, ready to take on anything in her path.
"You. Are bloody. Kidding. Me."
Alice glared at the figure sitting in the middle of the temple, shrouded by shadow and smoke. This was the height of ridiculousness. She'd spent God knows how long scaling this bloody mountain – fighting more enemies than she could count, running back and forth across a variety of unforgiving landscapes, and essentially dodging death with every breath she took – and finally, when she reached her goal, what was waiting for her in Caterpillar's oh-so-mysterious-and-sacred retreat?
A statue. A Goddamned statue. Alice snarled at the brass depiction of the insect and his hookah, hands clutching her hips to keep them from tearing out her hair. “I’ve come all this way to find a simulacrum?!”
“If I had the time, I’d detail how often you prefer dealing with illusions rather than the real thing!”
Alice started. What the – If I've started hallucinating in Wonderland, then I'm truly past all help. "Caterpillar?"
The statue seemed to glower at her. “Problems you refuse to deal with don’t exist!" the oracle continued, his voice echoing all around. Where could he be? This temple was all one tiny room. "You deny reality!”
“That’s not right! I know what’s real!” Alice protested – although even as she said that, she knew arguing such in Wonderland probably didn’t help her case. Of course, I know Wonderland is all inside my head. That has to count for something, right? Right?
“No,” Caterpillar replied, voice dark. “You only think you know. And not only do you allow others to tell you what isn’t real, you ignore anything and anyone that attempts to bring the truth to your consciousness!”
Alice’s eyes narrowed. Caterpillar was sounding far too much like a Rutledge doctor for her tastes. “You know, I’ve a friend who studies butterflies,” she said, folding her arms and giving the statue a warning look. “I bet he’d love to stick you on a pin and find out just what species and genus you are.”
“Silly girl – I know everything that you do,” Caterpillar snapped back. “And the day Victor starts making bug boxes is the day he’s not Victor anymore. Let’s not waste precious time arguing – come inside!”
With no warning, the temple began to shake. The floor trembled and cracked, chunks of square paving toppling into the darkness below. Alice yelped as the bit she was standing on gave way. Fortunately, her skirt obligingly puffed out as she fell, slowing her to a gentle float and saving her from cracking her head open on any of the debris. Why can’t anyone just have a simple door into their inner sanctum? she griped to herself as she drifted down. If not for my petticoats, I’d have been stranded long before even setting foot in Hatter’s Domain.
Well, at least now she knew where the flesh-and-blood Caterpillar had been hiding. The temple had been built over a huge underground cavern, its far walls hidden in shadow. Before her, a gigantic white cocoon hung from what remained of the ceiling, like a soft, ghostly stalactite. Long threads of silk anchored it to the walls and floor, keeping the occupant stable even as the earth around them shivered. Through a sort of semi-transparent “window” in the front, Alice could see the face of her oracle, eyes closed as if in sleep. He’s metamorphosing? That’s – I know I mentioned the possibility when I first met him, but. . .after over a decade, it seems wrong. I’d gotten it into my head that he’d be a Caterpillar forever. She landed lightly on the ground, gaze still fixed on the cocoon. At least this explains why he hasn’t done anything to help his loyal followers.
It certainly didn’t explain his inability to talk plainly, though. She glowered up at the mummified creature, temper rising again. “What precisely is it that you want from me?” she demanded.
“To face the truth! To recall what you have willingly forgotten!” Caterpillar replied, his voice booming around the chamber. “To accept what you have forced yourself not to see, painful as it may be! Remember, Alice, remember!”
“What do you think I've been doing?” Alice snapped back. “Wonderland scatters moments here and there, and I do my best to collect them all, but–” She stopped, sighing deeply. “I’ve been trying, I really have, but – my memories are shattered. This wicked train has ruined nearly all I can recall. And Wonderland will perish completely as I lose my mind,” she added, shuddering as she remembered the Vale of Tears being burned and broken into a Vale of Doom, Hatter's Domain falling to pieces around her ears, and the Deluded Depths boiled and crushed via the Infernal Train's rampage. “So much has changed. . . .” She wrapped herself in her arms, closing her eyes to hold back tears. Wonderland was a mad, infuriating place, full of rudeness and nonsense – but she loved it, and she did not want to see it die. “I-I can’t help Wonderland if I can’t help myself.”
“Much has changed,” Caterpillar agreed. “But you’ve got it backwards. Save Wonderland and you may save yourself." The chamber rocked again, pebbles raining from the ceiling and breaking against the floor. "The Carpenter was on to something, but he was hiding from the real. Your goal is to accept it!”
"The Carpenter was also a mass-murderer and unrepentant liar," Alice replied, rolling her eyes.
"I never claimed he was a paragon of virtue. But do you recall his last speech to you?"
"However this ends, Alice, consider the prospect that you've been misled! Then ask, by who?" played again across her brain. She hadn't really pondered the question since her ignominious return from jail after the Radcliffe incident. And thinking about it now, she still didn't have a satisfactory answer. Oh, why must everyone here always talk in such a roundabout manner? “I'm not good with riddles in my current state, Caterpillar," she said as more rocks tumbled down the walls. "Tell me – where should I go then? What should I do?”
“The Queen must be served, Alice. The Queen, in all her guises, must always be served.”
The Queen?! A chill colder than the winds of Tundraful shot down Alice’s spine. But – the Queen was a madwoman, a monster – dead!
Something smacked against her foot. Alice looked down to see a good-sized stone resting next to her toes. Another three rolled down beside it, forcing her to jump out of the way. Looking up, she saw the source of the miniature landslide – a small ramp, roughly hewed out of the near wall. Alice kicked the rocks away and followed its path in reverse, coming to a ledge near the top that faced directly into the cocoon’s “window.” Built for the Ant Elders to converse with their “god?” She didn’t know and didn’t care. All that mattered that it was a convenient platform to yell at him. “How can she stem this growing corruption, or assist my search?” she demanded as the cavern rocked in a full earthquake now, heavier and heavier stones crashing to the earth around them. “What does she know that I don’t?”
Caterpillar’s eyes at last fluttered open, gazing upon her with mysterious wisdom. Or perhaps it was just cryptic bullshit. One and the same here in this world of madness. “She is someone you once knew and loved,” he intoned as the stabilizing threads of his cocoon were severed by the downpour. His prison rocked dangerously, but he took no notice. “Time changes us all.”
“Not all change is good,” Alice replied, eying the ceiling as a boulder smashed the ramp behind her. Was it her, or was there a familiar, horrifying thundering right on the edge of all this noise. . . .
Caterpillar smiled – or, at least, she thought he did. It was hard to tell when he was upside-down. “Remember that when you find the Queen.”
The thundering grew louder, turning into the distinct roar of the Infernal Train. "I won't be able to find anyone if I'm smashed to bits!"
Alice's head jerked downward to see the last of Caterpillar’s hookahs lying in pieces on the cave floor, shattered by an enormous stone. The smoke curled up into the air, suffusing the cocoon. Caterpillar took a deep breath in –
WHISH – WHOOSH! A pair of enormous wings, painted in red, green, and black, tore free of the silk. Alice had only a moment to note that they looked something like a snarling face before the newly-transformed butterfly burst from his prison and flew to freedom. "Time changes us all," he repeated as he receded away into the cloud of smoke.
"Wait!" Alice cried, reaching out to him. But he paid no heed, flapping his wings and growing smaller and smaller, until he looked like any ordinary moth against any ordinary window. For a moment, she was vaguely aware of an uncomfortable bed beneath her, of dirty gray walls surrounding her, and of grimy sunlight pressing against her face.
Then – all was darkness.