Chapter 16: Shocking Revelations and Unexpected Detours
October 22nd, 1875
Bow Street Police Station, London’s East End, England
"Get away from me, you fuck!"
"Oi, you there! That's enough of that!"
Alice blearily opened her eyes, muscles stiff and cold. An aged knothole stared back at her, a splinter sticking up from its edge like Odysseus's spear out of the Cyclops's eye. Passed out on someone's floor again, she thought, sitting up and rubbing her head. I need to stop this before it becomes a habit. Ugh. . . . She glanced up at the cracking ceiling. Where am I this time?
The shadow of bars across her face and the stink of old blood and urine gave her an immediate clue. I'm back in gaol? Oh, wonderful, she mentally grumbled as the fog cleared from her mind. What happened this time? How long have I been here? Did I manage to douse Radcliffe in ink again somehow? Or– She grabbed at her chest as a spike of terror burst through her heart. Oh please don't tell me I killed someone. I’m only supposed to be a bloodthirsty murderer to the Wasps!
“Becoming a regular this nick, Alice.”
Alice looked up to see a lumpy face framed by dark blond sideburns and a battered top hat watching her through the door. A moment's determined squinting helped place him as Constable Harry Hightopp, the same man who’d chased her all over London after the first incident at Radcliffe’s. Was that really just over a month ago? It felt like years. “What’s it this time, Fred?” he added, turning away as another officer approached.
“Howling outside the Old Lady; muttering about a murder in Threadneedle Street; cursing insects, and the National Railroad,” Fred listed off, rolling his "r"s in his mild Scottish brogue. Alice hid her face in her hand. Why oh why couldn’t she just fall unconscious when she was in Wonderland? Being temporarily catatonic was much more acceptable than wandering the streets shrieking at nothing. “Had to bring her in, didn’t I?”
“Tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh. . .a menace to herself – but no danger to others, surely,” Harry said, glancing in at her. That was very charitable of him, Alice had to say – especially with the way she must have been carrying on. “She don’t belong in gaol.”
“Too true,” Fred agreed, putting himself right next to his fellow policeman on her “people I rather like just at the moment” list. “But then, where does she belong?”
“That’s what I’d like to figure out myself,” Alice confessed, making them start. Probably hadn't guessed I was properly conscious. She hoisted herself up off the floor. “I'm sorry for causing such a fuss. . .I didn’t – I didn’t hurt anyone, did I?”
“Just gave a few wee ones a fright,” Fred said, leaning against the bars. “They was on a walk with their teacher when you jumped out of nowhere screamin' to duck or the fireballs would get ‘em. They scattered, and one bumped straight into me comin' off me coffee break.”
"And I didn't try to do anything to you?"
"Nope – went in nice and quiet," he assured her. “Just mumbled something about how ‘the peak had better be worth it’ and then didn’t say a word.”
“Oh good." Alice let out a sigh of relief. “So – ah – how long have I been your guest?”
“Not more than two hours,” Harry said. “We were keepin' an eye on you in case you woke up." He rolled his shoulders. "Guess I’d better send you back to Dr. Bumby now. Don’t want him raising holy hell for daring to keep you overnight again.”
“Ooh, what happened?” Fred asked curiously.
"Well, it was the same night Jack Splatter, that waste of mother's love. . . ."
Alice tuned the two out as Harry told Fred the story of her “inquiries” toward Splatter and subsequent fainting fit, twisting her hands together. So – she still hadn't done anything too horrible while out of her senses. That was good to know, at least. Though she did feel a bit guilty over scaring the trousers off a bunch of schoolchildren. Maybe their teacher had managed to work it into her lesson – "And here we see the London madwoman in her natural habitat. . . ." Most of the city would probably prefer me to be locked up in a zoo at this point, she thought, touching the cold bars before her. Maybe it would be for the best. I could pace and scream and writhe to my heart's content, and be guaranteed food and water besides. I don't even remember the last time I had a proper meal. Or slept in a real bed, come to think of it. She rubbed the small of her back. If only I could spin my own cozy cocoon like Caterpillar. . . .
"The Queen must be served, Alice. The Queen, in all her guises, must always be served!"
Of course, it seemed the stress of metamorphosis had turned her oracle even madder than she. Alice frowned deeply as she turned the sentences over and over in her aching mind. “The Queen must be served”. . .what is she even doing alive? I admit I haven’t exactly been a paragon of sanity as of late, but – before, Caterpillar was the loudest voice outside of Cheshire in favor of killing her. And now he tells me she may be my only hope? He may as well have said that black is white and up is down. How am I supposed to trust her to help me?
She wiped some crust from the corners of her eyes and put the question aside for another time. Wonderland's riddles were hardly her top priority right now. Much bigger concerns loomed on the horizon – such as how Dr. Bumby would react to her reappearance at Houndsditch. He’s going to be furious when I get back, she thought, running her fingers through her hair to neaten it. Wandering off again, losing myself to hallucinations. . .he might have already sent notice to Rutledge. What if Dennis and Lum are there when I arrive, waiting to pick me up? She shuddered as she pictured the pair, eyes gleaming with mirthful malice as they held out a straitjacket. And even if they’re not, I’m going to have to deal with another lecture – and probably another round of useless medication. Ugh, if only Victor had been the one to find – Victor!
Her head snapped up, eyes wide. Damn it, how is he? Jack Splatter hasn’t gotten to him, has he? Oh no no no – I’ll never forgive myself if he’s hurt – She threw herself against the bars. “Excuse me! Have either of you seen Victor anywhere?”
“Said he’d have me job and me ass on a plate! Told him he could have – beg pardon, Alice?” Harry said, blinking as he looked at her.
“Victor Van Dort! I was walking with him to Radcliffe’s house when this whole mess started, but we got separated and I told him to go off without me and – and Jack Splatter’s out for his blood, and I’ve got to know if he’s all right!”
“Oh – yeah, he’s fine,” Harry soothed, giving her a smile. “Came in 'bout a week ago tellin' us you’d gone missin’ and he’d be much obliged if we kept an eye out for you. Also told us about his trouble with Splatter – can’t believe a skinny bloke like him was the one to knock Nebuchadnezzar's folly out!” He laughed a little. “Anyway, we saw to it Splatter had a bit of a talking-to, so your swell’s alive and well. He’ll be very happy to see you again, no doubt about that. Not a day gone by without him droppin' in at some point to check up.” He winked at Alice. “Got yourself a sweetheart, Alice? Someone to look after you?”
Alice was on the verge of protesting when she recalled Victor, coughing and worn from a trip into a burning building, explaining how he'd walked the length and breadth of the East End over an entire week in search of her. “. . .Maybe the latter,” she admitted, rubbing the back of her head in unconscious imitation of him. Poor boy – why did he have to appoint himself the one to keep an eye on me? As if he hasn’t got enough to worry about already. “But he’s really just a friend.”
“Oh? Bet you a pound he don't think that way,” Harry said, smirking. “Make him a sweetheart, Alice. That boy’s smitten and no mistake. And he can keep you in grand style, too.”
Alice rolled her eyes. For God’s sake. . .when would these busybodies learn to keep their nose out of her business? Did it look like she was in any condition to consider marriage? I admit, there's a certain appeal to living with Victor for the rest of my days, but I'm enough on my nut to know that's little more than a pipe dream. Particularly if I can't get Wonderland straightened out. And I wish they'd stop bringing up the family wealth as one of his primary qualifications for suitorhood. I would have liked him just as much as if he'd been a coal heaver. She folded her arms and glowered at Harry. "Mind letting me loose so I can laugh about this with him?"
Harry shook his head. “If you don’t want to listen to sense. . .you know the way out,” he said, unlocking the cell door. “Go ahead home before Bumby starts talking about me ass again.”
“Right – thank you.” Alice stepped gratefully out into the hall, nodded at Fred, who tipped his hat to her, then made for the stairs. Her previously-combative neighbor snored loudly as she passed, beer and whiskey having finally rendered him insensible to the world. Pity and annoyance warred for dominance in her gut as she glanced at his prone form. She felt bad for the way life had used him and others of his ilk, she really did. . .but such sympathy was tempered by the knowledge that any one of them would inspire more compassion in the general public than she ever would. Act mad because of excessive drink, and at least some people will throw you a coin or two on the street. Genuinely go mad from grief and a need to discover the truth, and everyone will call for you to be locked away forever. What a world we live in.
She hurried down the stairs and into the main room of the station, eager to escape this hole of misery and broken dreams. The desk sergeants were keeping busy today – every officer had a small queue of miscreants waiting either to make a complaint or be booked. Alice caught a snatch or two of conversation as she maneuvered her way through the crowd:
"Charges? I've got a book."
"This is my day off!"
"What's she done this time?"
"Indecent exposure, cockfighting, abusive language!"
"Sign here – if you can."
"What – oh, afternoon," Alice said, recognizing the speaker as one of Nanny's whores. A curious meeting – what had she been picked up for? Nanny was usually more careful than that – but Alice wasn't about to stick around and chat. She had places to go and people to see. Straight back to Houndsditch – let's get Dr. Bumby's ranting and raving over with, she thought, looking out the window. Then, if I'm not overwhelmed with chores – because God knows the great doctor won't have cleaned up after himself – I'll park myself in the foyer and wait for Victor. I wonder if he'll actually–
“Mow. . . .”
Alice froze. No. It can’t be. It simply can’t be. How would it – why would it – Ignoring the puzzled looks thrown her way, she whirled around toward the front doors. Tucked into the corner beside, carefully grooming itself –
was the snow-white cat.
Alice gaped at it. This was – this was getting to be beyond coincidence. The Whitechapel Market, the Billingsgate docks, the street Jack Splatter had threatened her and Victor on, and now the Bow Street lockup – how did this bloody feline always know where to find her? Was she being stalked by the damn thing? Maybe it's Cheshire in a less-conspicuous guise. . .but Victor saw it too, how does that work. . . .
The cat licked its tail clean, then stood up and stretched, claws biting into the floorboards. Yellow eyes focused on her, glittering with a quiet intelligence. "Mow," it repeated, then slipped through the half-open door into the square. Oh no you don’t, Alice thought, scowling as she gave chase. You’re not getting away that easily.
Bright sunshine met her as she exited the gaol – it seemed the world was doing its best to apologize for the upcoming winter by being as pleasant as possible before the first snow. The people of London were only too happy to grant forgiveness, judging by the amount of people out and about. Women in their almost-best dresses and men in smart casual suits promenaded around the square, meeting other couples and talking at their leisure. Alice quietly wished she could be one of them, having a nice wander through the city with Victor at her side. No hallucinations, no worries, no forcing people to run from her in the street – just her and –
That accursed fuzzball waiting just past the statue. Alice ran to grab it, but it slipped through her fingers like fresh butter and headed for an adjoining street. Alice followed it, grumbling to herself. "Horrid thing. . .maybe you're Rabbit reincarnated instead, here to get revenge on me accidentally leaving Mr. Bunny behind. It's not like that was my fault! Ugh, once I catch you, I'll – I'll. . . ."
Her brow wrinkled as her steps slowed. What would she do with the cat? She couldn't take it back to the Home – Dr. Bumby had a strict "no pets" policy (excepting only the occasional quick-dying fish). Even if she tried to make it a little house of its own in the courtyard, there was no guarantee it would stay. Cats went where they would and did as they pleased – she knew that probably better than anyone. And all the frustration in the world wouldn't lead her to knowingly hurt an animal. So what exactly was the point of this pursuit?
The cat noticed her slackened pace and paused at the end of the street, watching her intently. Alice frowned at it. “What do you want from me, you rotten old puss?”
The cat’s tail flicked crossly. "Merow."
“Don’t give me that – wherever you go, disaster follows,” Alice scolded, folding her arms. “Madness, murder, dismay. . .not one hole you've led me down yet has been to my benefit. My life is waiting for me in the other direction. So why should I bother with you this time?”
"Murrr. . . ." The cat walked up to her and pawed fitfully at her shoes, tail puffed and ears low. It seemed almost anxious now – as if her refusal to go further had spooked it. Alice sighed deeply. Damn her tender heart. “Fine, fine, I’ll at least look,” she muttered.
The cat bounded away again, Alice at its heels. They exited onto a market road, much like the one in Whitechapel, except frequented by a better class of customer. Alice glanced into a stationery shop as they wove through the press of people, admiring a fancy pack of cards set out for display. "I hope this hasn't all been a ruse to convince me to purchase some cat toys. I'm pretty sure I don't have even a sixpence on me."
The cat seemed more interested in the people than the shops, however. It sniffed the hems of a few passing skirts, then meowed and made a beeline for a young lady in dark blue standing by a lamppost, out of the main crush. It rubbed itself against the ruffles of her dress, purring away. “Oh! Hello there,” the woman said, kneeling to pet the puss. “Where did you come from?”
I could ask the same of you, Alice thought, tilting her head. The cat’s chosen affection-giver stood out quite a bit from the usual London crowd. She was slightly taller than Alice – though perhaps that was just the effect of heeled boots – and incredibly pale. Her cheeks had a hint of roses, as did her lips, but other than that she was practically as white as paper. Even her hair, tied up in a neat bun, was so light brown that one could be forgiven for mistaking it as gray. Despite all this, though, she was attractive – blessed with a tight-laced waist and a squashed-heart face, the latter dominated by a pair of huge dark blue eyes. In fact, they were so dark blue you'd almost think they were – black. Wait a moment. Could it be. . . ? Alice wove through the crowd toward the stranger, lifting her hand in greeting. “Excuse me.”
The woman looked up. “Hello,” she said with a smile, straightening and brushing off her skirt. “Is this your cat?”
“No – well, not in the accepted sense,” Alice corrected herself as the cat wound about her legs possessively. “He – or she – just likes to follow me around. I was wondering – are you from Burtonsville, by any chance?”
The woman blinked a few times. “Er, yes. Though I live in Sandford now.” She recovered and held out a hand. “Mrs. Victoria White.”
A smile tugged at Alice's lips. Bingo. “Alice Liddell," she said, shaking the offered appendage before smirking. "Your maiden name wouldn’t happen to be Everglot?”
Mrs. White stepped back, bringing a hand to her mouth. “Yes!” She peered closely at Alice. “I’m sorry, but have we met?”
Alice laughed. “No, but I've heard enough about you to feel as if I have. I'm friends with Victor Van Dort," she explained. "He told me everyone in his hometown was as pale as he was, but until now I wasn't sure if I truly believed him. No offense intended.”
Mrs. White brightened. “Oh! It’s fine – the village does seem to be rather afraid of sunshine,” she said, giggling softly. Then her expression sobered. “You’re acquainted with Victor? How is he? Doing well, or–? I don’t mean to pry, but I haven't seen or heard from him since – since he met my husband," she ended in a low voice. "Perhaps it was too much to expect that we could still exchange letters. . . ."
“He’s all right,” Alice reassured her, doing her best to ignore a twinge of guilt. Well, when I’m not making him worry endlessly about me, he is. “At least, he was the last time I saw him. He's my closest friend here in the city – easily the sweetest young man I've ever met." She fiddled a bit with her apron. "He’s told me about what happened between you two. If you don’t mind my saying so, it was quite the story.”
“Yes, I would imagine it was,” Mrs. White said, rubbing and squeezing her hands together. “I – I hope you understand I never meant to hurt him. I just – circumstances changed, and I thought he was lost to me forever–”
“Oh, I know, I know,” Alice cut in before the woman started babbling. “Victor's never once blamed you for any of it. And why should he – the whole business seems to have resulted from a mess of misunderstandings rather than actual malice. You hardly strike me as the type who enjoys toying with men's hearts.” She really didn’t – in fact, after finally seeing her in the flesh, Mrs. White reminded Alice quite a lot of a female Victor. No wonder they liked each other so much at first sight, she thought, amused. They're practically peas in a pod. You know, I bet if things had worked out, they would have made a rather cute couple –
And for some reason, that thought made her stomach turn.
Alice touched her belly, startled by her own reaction. What the – now what had brought that on? This wasn't like thinking about Caterpillar being eaten by wasps (guh) – this was something that would have made her best friend happy! Didn't she want Victor to be happy? It wasn't like she had any particular objections to Mrs. White – she seemed very nice indeed from first impressions. Yet the idea of her being Victor's lawfully-wedded wife made her insides twist up into knots. Why? Well – there is the fact that if he’d married her, we would have never met, Alice rationalized, rubbing her arm. And nobody can blame me for not wanting to think about that. But still, I shouldn't feel this awful over the possibility, especially when it can't even come to pass. . . .
“I’m glad,” Mrs. White said, pulling Alice's attention away from her body's refusal to just sit down and behave itself. “I was worried half to death he was angry with me. Not that he wouldn't have had cause. . . ." She sighed, then tilted her head. “So he lives here in London now?”
“Yeeess,” Alice said, rocking on her heels as she bit her lip. Oh dear. What was the best way to break the news that someone’s ex-fiancé was currently trapped in a place most people considered just above a madhouse? “We – actually live in the same place, in fact. The, ah, Houndsditch Home for Wayward Youth.”
Mrs. White frowned, politely puzzled. “I’m afraid I haven’t heard of it.”
“It’s a home for troubled children – and the occasional adult,” Alice explained, tapping her chest. “Victor’s receiving therapy there from Dr. Bumby.”
“Therapy?” Now Mrs. White looked all-out baffled. “Whatever for?”
Alice raised an eyebrow. “For that delusion he had about seeing the afterlife?” she said pointedly, folding her arms. “Personally I don’t think it’s anything to get that worked up over, but his parents–”
“Delusion?!” Mrs. White cut her off, jaw hanging open. “Why would Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort think that was a delusion?! Didn’t they talk to anyone in town?”
Alice stared. “Wait – you – you believe him?” she said, dropping her hands back to her sides.
“Of course I do!” Mrs. White cried, flinging out her arms and nearly smacking a passerby in the face. “Excuse me – I saw Emily with my own two eyes! The whole village did! There was a great parade of living and dead to the church in honor of their wedding! How Victor’s parents could think it was all a lie when he had so many witnesses is beyond me!”
The foundations of the world shifted beneath Alice's feet, crumbling at the edges. “They didn't – he didn't – he – he said they were all terrified of your pastor,” she managed to get out. “Or just – d-didn’t want to believe it after it was over. . . .”
Mrs. White scowled. “That’s outrageous!” she snapped, pacing the street next to her lamppost. “All those people I saw with their dead loved ones. . .how could they not say anything? Especially given what happened in the church!” She whipped her head toward Alice, a few locks of hair escaping from her bun. “Emily saved his life, you know! Lord Barkis would have killed him if she hadn't stepped forward! And she kept me safe during the duel – I might have been crushed by those falling pews if she hadn't pulled me away. Not to mention the poor woman gave up her greatest dream just as it was coming true because she didn’t want me to suffer like she–”
She stopped abruptly as she became aware of the puzzled crowd that now surrounded them. “Er, forgive me,” she murmured, blushing and lowering her head. “I just – it makes me so angry, hearing that.” Her fists tightened. “Why didn’t he say anything when he came by our house? Did he honestly believe I wouldn't help him?” She shook her head and took a deep, calming breath, before meeting Alice's eyes with a firm gaze. “I know I must sound like a madwoman, but – it happened, Miss Liddell. Every last bit of it. If you need more proof, just ask my parents. It’s the whole reason they fled, after all.”
Alice didn’t reply. She couldn’t. Her brain was awhirl, trying desperately to make sense of this sudden shift in the universe. The idea of someone raising the dead was impossible, incredible, insane. . .and yet here was Victor’s ex-fiancee, telling her that she'd been right in the thick of it. Making a spectacle of herself in her passion and fury. Yes, she did sound like a madwoman (and Alice would know) – but the way her eyes burned didn't suggest lunacy at all. Oh my God. She’s telling the truth.
He’s telling the truth!
Alice took a shaky step backward as the earth rocked beneath her. All this time – all this time, and Victor wasn’t delusional! He'd been right to protest his confinement at Houndsditch, right to hold onto his memories with all he had, right to be angry with everyone who called him mad! And she – she’d been one of them. She'd dismissed him, teased him, told him right to his face he was a loon. . . . “I’ve got to talk to him,” she whispered, spinning around. The cat yowled as she accidentally trod on its tail, but she barely noticed. She had to get back to Houndsditch, had to apologize, had to –
Had to –
Was it just her, or had the sun suddenly grown even brighter than before? The world around her blurred and faded to indistinct shapes, drowning in the rush of blinding light. She attempted to raise her hand, hoping to shield her eyes, but the violent rays burrowed into her skin and pinned her in place. Squinting was no help at all, everything was just too intense, too bright – her head began to pound, and her legs went wobbly beneath her–
Mrs. White’s frightened cry of “Miss Liddell?!” was the last thing she heard before everything went black.
Oohhhh. . . now where am I?
Alice scrubbed her eyes as consciousness trickled back in. The oppressive brilliance of the sun had gone – in fact, the whole situation had reversed, and she now stood in deep midnight gloom. Looking up, she realized why – instead of sky above her head, there was stone. Turning around slowly revealed she was tucked away in a dark, cool room, as if she were meat set away for curing. At least I didn't collapse like a sack of potatoes. . .damn, I need something to eat. She rubbed her temples. All right, so I’m inside. But inside where, precisely?
Well, there was light trickling in from the entrance, and a wall beyond – that was as good a start for her investigations as any. Alice cautiously exited her cell, eyes peeled for trouble. On the other side of the arch sat a dank hallway, painted in various shades of brown. Moss and mold grew in large clumps over the walls and cobbles, fed by a steady dripping from the ceiling. A thick metal pipe sprouted dangling lamps as it wound down the center of the hall, pouring pools of yellow light onto the shadowy floor. These were augmented by smaller lamps in round cages poking out of the piled stone at intervals. Between these tiny suns gaped further archways filled with iron bars. Wriggling hands poked out of a couple, fingers grasping at the air as their owners moaned. Must be the cells beneath Bow Street, Alice decided, pulling down her sleeve. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. White dragged me back to the station after I fainted on her. Though this seems rather – medieval compared to what I remember from the last time I was down here. . .if I can even trust my eyes, she added with a roll of same. Bloody hallucinations. . .let's get out of here before I do something silly.
She turned away from the groaning criminals, trying to remember how she'd gotten in when Harry had walked her down. To her surprised relief, right behind her was a short flight of stairs leading up to a heavy wooden door. Well, that was easy! She mounted the steps as quick as she could, grabbed the handle–
And felt it rattle uselessly in her hand. Oh, shock of shocks, it’s locked, she thought sarcastically, giving it a little kick. I guess it's justified; they don't want anybody escaping. . .but what about those of us who need to? If I was meant to be a prisoner, I would have been sealed in like the others! Maybe there's a matching exit down the other end. . . . She turned around again and peered along the hall. Things blurred a little after the first few feet, but she could just make out a hint of something red lurking at the far end. A warning light, perhaps? For the most dangerous criminals? That might mean there's an officer on guard who can help me. He's unlikely to be as understanding as Harry and Fred, but maybe that's a good thing. Means he'll want me out of his sight sooner.
Destination chosen, Alice started down the hall at a trot, keeping an eye out for anyone who looked trustworthy. The prisoners' groans grew louder as she passed, filthy fingers attempting to snag her arm or apron strings. "Shush, you lot," she scolded, keeping well away. This was the home of the worst trash the East End had to offer. Hero complex or not, she certainly wasn't about to start helping them. I don't care what you try, she thought, dodging around another man's feeble grab. I'm not helping some murderer or pimp escape just because I’m having a bit of trouble telling what’s –
What’s. . . .
Her feet stopped dead in their tracks as horror flooded her body. The redness she'd seen before now stretched out before her – and while it was a caution, it wasn't for dangerous criminals. No, this red warned that the bricks around you were slowly melding into flesh, horrible pink slimy flesh – that the human hands that had reached out to you were being replaced by wet, pulsating tentacles – and that the stink of gas leaking from the pipe was now the scent of fresh blood – No. No, this isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t happening – she can’t be here, she can’t, she can’t – she’s dead, she’s dead, you killed her –
Her first instinct was to whip around and bolt back the way she’d come. But what good would that do? She was no lockpick, she couldn't open the door to safety – and down in her gut, she knew that, no matter how much she pounded, no one would ever come to rescue her. Similarly, releasing a prisoner to help her was out of the question. Even if she did have the means, they'd likely just attack her the moment they were free. There were no convenient windows to squeeze through, no holes she could break open. The only way to go was forward. Alice swallowed and squeezed her fists, looking up at the twisted heart-shaped arch that marked the boundary between sanity and madness. “The Queen must be served,” she whispered, and stepped through.
It was exactly as horrible as she remembered from her previous assault on the Queen's palace. The walls were the most lurid shade of pink imaginable, overgrown with thick spiderwebs of quivering muscle. The ground squished beneath her feet, a mass of mysterious and unnameable tissue. Arteries and veins branched out across the ceiling like creeper vines, dripping blood and staining her shoes and apron. The belly of the beast to be sure, but a very poorly-designed one. Darwin would be appalled.
A slithering like snakes curling over each other reached her ears. Glancing right and left, she saw more cells like the ones she'd left behind – heart-shaped, of course, and barred with pink-tinted iron. No friendly lamps lit the inside of these prisons – instead, what confronted her was a disturbing pitch-black void, an abyss ready to swallow her up if she stared at it too long. Must have borrowed that from Victor's nightmares – as if my imagination needed any more ideas, she thought as she gingerly made her way down the meaty passageway. The slithering followed, tracking her every step. Just remember, Alice, it's not real. It’s not real. It’s not real it’s not real it’s not real –
Coldness wrapped around her wrist and tugged her sharply to the side. Alice screamed and ripped away from the offending appendage, nearly tumbling into a puddle of bile. “Go away!” she shrieked, hugging herself. “You’re not real!”
The tentacles seemed to disagree, writhing against the rusted metal holding them captive. Another set, pinker and fatter, tried to snatch her from behind, and a third stretched themselves to their limits from a ceiling cell. Alice dodged and stumbled away, wildly tearing at her own back with a hand. “Come on, come on – 'swift and keen and always ready for service,' Cheshire said! Well serve me now, you wretched Blade! If I'm seeing things like this, I must be in Wonderland! Yves, you horrid creature, make yourself known and surrender my weapon!”
Nothing. Merely the knot holding her apron in place met her questing fingers. The tentacles slurped against each other, preparing themselves for another attack. Left helpless to defend herself against them, Alice did the only thing she could do – run like hell. Oh God, oh God – what did I do to bring her back? she thought frantically as she slipped and slid her way past the pulsing growths. I’m sorry, Wonderland, I’m so sorry!
Abruptly, the hallway opened up, walls receding until she seemed to be inside a great tower. Alice skidded to a stop as the floor disappeared before her, plunging over a ledge in a waterfall of red. Here, stone once again asserted its dominance as a building material, although flesh still clung to the masonry like lichen to a tree. A diseased tongue of a walkway extended out into the center of the space, tasting the rotten air. Alice ventured cautiously out onto it, then peered up and down. The tower seemed to go on forever in both directions, webs of ligaments and skin falling away to yawning darkness above and below. Confusion began to take over from fright. What did she do now? There wasn’t anywhere else to go –
The chamber rumbled as the biggest, fattest, most disgustingly pink tentacles she'd ever seen in her life emerged from the shadows. They writhed toward her, throbbing steadily, glistening with sweat, ready to squeeze and suffocate better than any anaconda. Alice stumbled backward, hands held before her, trying for her Teapot Cannon, her Hobby Horse, anything that might slow them down even the tiniest bit –
Everything abruptly bounced as the walkway shook beneath her, sending her stomach up her throat. Moments later, the decaying stone snapped free of its moorings, dropping her into the abyss before she even had the chance to scream. Well, at least the tentacles can't get me, she thought as they waved uselessly above her head. Poor comfort, though. She glanced down the flesh-laden tunnel. What’s waiting for me at the bottom of this rabbit hole? Jabberspawn? Lava Monsters? Card Guards? Actually, at this height, just the floor is lethal enough. . . .Grimacing, she closed her eyes and braced herself. Blood-tainted wind whipped at her face, filling her nostrils with the scent of approaching death –
And then, out of nowhere, it was replaced with clear, fresh air.
Alice's eyes popped open with a start. The tower was gone, along with the flesh and the tentacles and anything else that hinted at the presence of the Queen. Instead, she was tumbling end over end through an ocean of blue sky. Below her, huge globs of fluffy white clouds sailed lazily over a vast expanse of green. Above, the sun shone bright and fine. What – but how – I'm not complaining, but still –
Something huge and flat whistled by, swooping through the air like a rectangular hawk. Another followed close, then another, a swirling parade of red and black and white. It was the familiar sight of a pair of dark clovers gracing the center of one of the "birds" that kicked Alice's brain back into gear. Playing cards! But how are they blessed with motion when they lack arms, legs, and head?
The question didn't seem to bother the cards at all. They streaked across the brilliant blue, Fives of Clubs dancing with Eights of Spades, Threes of Diamonds whirling around Sixes of Hearts, and Jacks and Tens of all suits playing hopscotch. Alice marveled at the scene. It's like all the people in the world threw a pack of cards into the air, intending to play a massive game of fifty-two pickup, only for the cards to decide they liked up here and would rather spend the rest of their lives high in the stratosphere. Oh, but that's ridiculous. She smirked and giggled. But then again, what isn't around here?
Well, far be it for her to shirk a bit of fun. As she plummeted into a roving hand of Aces and Queens, sending them flying every which way, she managed to flip herself upright. A moment's concentration with her arms spread, and the tiny supernova exploded deep within her again, bringing back her favorite blue dress and (properly) bloodied apron. She flicked her wrist experimentally, and the Vorpal Blade appeared in her hand, blade gleaming in the sun. Much better, she thought as her skirts billowed out. Now maybe I can actually defend myself against threats!
Of course, now that she had her arsenal at her disposal again, all her enemies seemed to have vanished. There was nothing in this domain except her, the clouds, and the cards. Alice drank in the last's aerial acrobatics with glee. They were better than a circus – tumbling end over end in the breeze, racing across the sky in strict formation, dipping into and out of the clouds – "Oh!"
And, not too far away, building literal card castles, complete with turrets and battlements on the walls. Alice spun and kicked her feet, trying to get closer for a better view. "That's absolutely amazing! Papa would have been thrilled!"
Sudden solidity beneath her feet finally pulled her gaze away. A few friendly Clubs had slid beneath her, forming a path through the clear blue sky. Alice sucked in a deep breath, gathering her wits. “Not what I expected at all,” she murmured. Then she grinned, heart light and relieved. “But I will certainly take a Cardbridge over Queensland.”
Thump. Thump! THUMP!
Alice snagged Mr. Bunny before his teacup upset itself in his lap, dumping water all over his chair. She sighed and hugged him tight. "The undergraduates must have left," she told him, glad of an opportunity to show off one of her favorite long words. "Lizzie only stomps like that when she knows Papa won't scold her for it."
Mr. Bunny suggested that they ought to go see why her sister was banging up the stairs hard enough to ruin someone's midday meal. "I bet I know already," Alice said, even as she stood up and ventured out into the hall. Lizzie was standing with her head against her door, fists clenched and teeth grinding. Alice approached her cautiously.“Was it the Awful One again?”
“Yes, it was,” Lizzie growled. “He would be part of the company after I had to admit everything to Papa. . .who, bless his heart, tried to keep him away. Told me to hide in the garden and he'd keep the bastard monologuing. I thought near the end I was home free, but just as I was preparing to sneak back inside, there he was! Papa says he claimed a need for the toilet – probably was hoping I'd be in it again!" She shuddered. "I should have known he'd turn up – he follows me everywhere. I’d compare him to a puppy if that wouldn’t be an insult to even the ugliest breeds.”
“Did he hurt you, Lizzie?” Alice asked, all concern as she searched her sister’s skin for bruises. "Did he – 'manhandle' you?" She wasn't sure what that meant, but it certainly sounded unpleasant.
“Trapped me against the wall and tried to slip his hand up my skirt,” Lizzie said, looking green. “On and on about how I needed to give him a chance, that we were meant to be. . .claimed I’d stolen his heart! 'Trifling with his affections!' Creepy sod! Touching me. . . .” She shivered, rubbing the tops of her arms as if she were cold. “Told Papa to never invite him to tea again!”
“I wish Papa would just expel him,” Alice muttered sulkily, clutching her rabbit to her middle.
“Me too, but he can't, sadly. For all his faults, the arse does get good grades.” Lizzie shook her head. “But he's been expelled from the house at least. Though if that will really stop him. . .we'll have to see if the bounder tries jumping the fence.” She took a deep breath, then straightened up and gave Alice a smile. “Enough about him already – fancy a game of chess with your big sister?”
Alice opened her mouth to say yes, but a breeze suddenly stirred her hair, and a herd of racing clouds swallowed Lizzie whole. A few blinks reminded her that she was twenty, not eight, and that she was currently perched atop a close-knit platform of Aces of Hearts, not standing in the upstairs hall. She sighed, brushing a few stray strands of hair out of her eyes. “Oh, for. . .a place as beautiful as this should have memories to match," she complained to a passing Nine of Diamonds. "Not an episode from the Saga of the Unwanted Suitor.”
How long had it been since those words had passed her lips? Probably not since before the fire. The Saga of the Unwanted Suitor – her mother had named it such after Lizzie had complained mightily over tea one day – had been a stain on the last few months the Liddell family had enjoyed alive. Arthur being the Dean of Christ Church had given his wife and children a comfortable life in one of the nicer parts of England, but it had also given poor Lizzie rather a lot of trouble with the local undergraduates. Being the pretty older daughter of an important school figure had its disadvantages – it seemed not a week would pass without some fool showing up at their house, wanting a wife as well as a diploma. Lizzie had never been impressed with any of them (and had declared so loudly and often), but one in particular had caused her quite a lot of extra grief in the weeks before her demise. Alice couldn’t remember who it was precisely – the undergraduates had always been a blur of loud voices and insincere smiles to her, and she hadn't thought about the Saga since its end in flames – but her sister's disgust with the cad's behavior was clear enough in her head. Poor Lizzie – to be stalked and harassed so not long before her death! Alice thought, hugging herself since she could no longer hug her sibling. I wouldn’t want some of my last memories to include fighting off the attentions of an idiot who didn’t know how to accept a “no.” Hopefully she’s long-forgotten him by this point. She made a face. I wish I could still!
She leapt off the platform, catching a ride on another traveling Ace before returning via a prolonged float to the main path of Clubs. Suppose it’s only right that I collect that particular memory now, though, she thought, jogging along as they slid under her feet one by one. (The Twos seemed most eager to help, she noticed, followed by the Fives. Perhaps they were her lucky numbers?) At the tender age of eight, I barely understood what my sister was going through. Now I can finally say that I know what it’s like to be hounded repeatedly about marriage. At least my hounding is of a much more good-natured sort, and involves my best friend rather than some creepy prick. She smirked as she rounded a corner. What a pair we’d make at the altar – him fidgeting, forgetting words, constantly waiting for either the dead to rise or a vicious murderer to make an unwelcome appearance, and me either screaming at nothing, drooling in catatonia, or attempting to attack the guests. Yes, Nanny and Constable Hightopp, I’ll book a chapel right away!
Even as she thought that, though, she found her imagination rebelling, preferring to picture a more settled wedding scene. She’d never been one to dream about marriage as a child – ordinary games of House bored her, and while she liked fancy dresses and flowers she felt she didn’t need a pretend husband to enjoy them – but. . .it was actually kind of fun to visualize her and Victor play-acting the old familiar ceremony. After all, they'd have to get the gossiping biddies and well-meaning interlopers off their back somehow if they ever wanted any peace again. Why, she could almost see it now. . .her in a white version of the Deluded Depths gown, delicate slippers on her feet and a crown of orange blossoms (or did she prefer lilies and roses? What the hell, make it all three) in her hair; him in that charcoal-colored suit he favored so much, red waistcoat freshly cleaned and blue tie knotted just so. They stood at the altar of the old stone church in Burtonsville, light trickling through the stained glass windows and painting rainbows on the floor. Victor's fingers curled around hers as they waited for – oh, no, they couldn't have Pastor Galswells as their officiant! The man would never shut up about how the groom was damned! Lock him away in his quarters, please, so he couldn't ruin things. But then who would actually marry them? She knew no one in the clergy, and she doubted Victor did either. . .ah wait, of course! Elder Gutknecht! Surely he wouldn't object to them contacting him for such a solemn sacrament–
“Victor, how on earth does a skeleton wear glasses without a nose or ears? Does he magic them on?”
. . .Or maybe he would. Alice slowed to a stop in front of a drifting Two, fingers twisting together as fresh guilt assaulted her insides. Damn it, why hadn’t she been a bit more open-minded? Yes, it was an incredible story to make herself believe, Victor himself had admitted that, but – half a year of sticking so firmly to that "delusion," without otherwise seeming mad at all, should have started to turn her opinion. For God's sake, she'd know him longer than his ex-fiancee (her stomach lurched again, much to her frustration – come on, you’ve known about her for months! It’s not like he’s going to stop being friends with you now that she’s shown up again), and she'd needed said fiancee to convince her of his sanity! That was simply shameful. Especially when you compared it to how kind had Victor been about putting up with her forays into Wonderland. No matter how mental her latest sojourn, he'd never complained about the strain she put him under, and he'd absorbed all her tales with nary a – all right, that wasn't exactly true. He'd made comments like “Sparrows with the heads of cows? Alice, that's officially odd,” and “Is there anyone in Wonderland whose name isn’t a literal description of what they are?” But that was the extent of his teasing (and it was all well-deserved). Otherwise, he took her fears over the fates of imaginary creatures almost as seriously as she did. He'd recognized just how important this world was to her. She couldn't have returned the favor?
You did, technically , an inner voice reminded her. You thought his world imaginary too, but you didn't tease him overmuch about it. You even said that you thought it a lovely afterlife and that you wished your parents and sister were in it.
Yes, but I made it quite clear that I didn't believe him, and that's the one thing he wanted most, Alice argued.
He seemed happy enough with your treating it as a pleasant fiction everyone should leave him alone over. Hasn't he said before that he'd deal with everyone thinking him mad so long as they let him remember in peace?
Yes, but – I wanted a chance to apologize before I was dragged back here, Alice thought, scuffing her boot against the Club. Hell, forget that, I just wanted a chance to see him again. I know time is of the essence when it comes to the damnable Train, but I'm allowed not to like that it keeps me away from my best friend. She touched her arm. It almost hurts, being away from him this long.
No argument there, her inner self replied. But Wonderland needs us, and dilly-dallying just locks us here all the longer. We'll just have to make do for now.
With what? The fact that I've probably embarrassed myself in front of an old friend of his? Possibly lowering her opinion of him in the bargain?
The woman who knew him for a day, then left him for another? That's your definition of an 'old friend?'
You're me – you heard how fondly they speak of each other.
True. Her inner self gave her a grin worthy of Cheshire. So perhaps it's best our mind lost its moorings when it did. Her finding him less attractive seems a most desirable fate.
You are being stupid and small, Alice snapped, shrinking to punctuate her words. We know there's no chance of them getting back together. And even if there was, it's not our place to stop them! I don't care that – that–
Her brain screeched to a halt right there, apparently afraid of going over whatever precipice lay at the other end of "that." Why did it insist on trying to hide things? Oh, just go away, Alice thought tiredly. I'm busy and I can't pretend to be two people like I used to.
Hmph. Well then, put those feet to use and see if you can't find us a pleasant thought or two. I'm tired of all this doom and gloom.
Me too. Shoving her imaginary twin aside, Alice proceeded onto the next hovering card with a soft grumble. "This had better be worth all the suffering.”
Come on come on I can make it I can make it– “Yes! Finally!”
Alice patted herself down, making sure there were no butterfly-shaped holes in her skirt (or flesh), then glared at the Ace of Spades now blocking her path backward. "You're supposed to be the card of Death, I believe. Not the card of what must be a bad prank."
The Ace didn't answer, of course, but Alice was half-sure the eyes of some of the face cards higher up on the walls shifted in her direction. "I've a right to complain," she told them, folding her arms. "I was enjoying myself tremendously exploring that first card castle, and then this one had to go and spoil the fun. You tell me what the point is of having a door that requires two pressure pads and perfect split-second timing to open." She huffed. "If it weren't for my flutterby trick, I'd be running back to try again for a fourth time! And that's not even counting the two Clockwork Bombs I wasted before I realized my crayon-wielding guide had gotten as confused as me and put her rabbit symbol on the wrong side!" She looked around and grumbled. "And what do I get for all my fuss? A single room with a handful of teeth, a trio of paper balloons, and – and I'm going to have to forgive it all, because that's a butterfly, isn't it?"
Shredding the balloons confirmed it – among the dropped teeth and roses, the glittering insect happily twirled. Alice couldn't help but smile, previous frustrations draining away. She'd hoped she'd find one of Victor's memories here. It was as close as she could come to the real thing. Of course, a theme of this world has been gorgeous scenery mixed with rather depressing bits of the past, she reminded herself. Lizzie and that wretched suitor, Bumby decrying light for Lethe. . .damn it, I don't want that to hold with his. If I wanted to see Victor in distress, I could just wake up right now.
Her brain didn't take the subtle hint. Nothing for it, then, she thought, and gripped a wing.
"I think that one looks like a lion."
Alice squinted at the cloud, eyes wandering over its curves and puffs. “Yes, I think you’re right,” she murmured. “Although it’s a rather mangy lion. Hasn’t got much of a mane.”
“Probably some man’s shaved it to line coat collars,” Victor said, letting his arm drop. “'Exotic,' right? I know my mother would buy one.”
Alice snickered. “Good point. They’ll do anything for a pound in this city.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Alice smiled at him, then leaned back against the grass, letting a companionable silence fall. Today had officially been another one of their good days. Not only were her hallucinations not bothering her for once (a rare event she was planning to celebrate with some manner of cake before they left), she hadn't even had to deal with the filth of Whitechapel for the vast majority of it. Victor had snapped not long after breakfast, declaring that he was going to visit a real park today or die trying. "Well, there's always Hyde Park," Alice had suggested on a whim – largely because that was the only one she knew the proper name of. Victor had lit up, then surprised her with his response: "Oh, that's a great idea, Alice! I haven't been there in quite a while. Come with me and we'll make an adventure of it."
Alice had demurred at first – Hyde Park was in the better part of the city, and she was quite certain maids and madwomen weren't welcome. But Victor had pleaded with her to change her mind, giving her those puppy-dog eyes that were impossible to refuse. "It won't be nearly as fun without you. . .and besides, given how they mock me around here, I probably look respectable enough for the both of us. Please, Alice?" And so she'd agreed (after clearing it with Dr. Bumby, of course).
And now – well, she was quite glad that he’d convinced her that it would be worth the cab fare and the risk of disapproving looks. It was a pleasure to be somewhere that wasn't completely choked by smog and trash. They'd spent a solid hour and a half just wandering through the grass and trees, pointing out unusual leaves and interesting animals to each other. They'd also made a stop at the Serpentine, tossing pebbles into the blue depths from the bridge, then searching for skipping stones along the banks. Victor had found one and managed five skips down the river, a feat which had left him with a certain spring in his step. Trotters from a fairly respectable-looking salesman had served as lunch, and not long after that they'd plopped down to watch the clouds drift through the (sort-of) blue sky. The ground was soft beneath their bodies, providing a lovely couch for gazing upward – and probably causing awful stains on their clothes. Alice didn’t mind, though. A day like today was worth a little extra laundry. This was as close as either of them was going to get to visiting the countryside for a while, and she intended to enjoy it to the fullest.
A pair of crows suddenly swooped over them, beating their wings frantically against the air. Victor started, then glanced over at her with a tiny smile. “Well, someone’s in a hurry.”
“Things to do and trash to find, likely," Alice replied. "Or perhaps they weren't crows at all, but some other unfortunate species caught in the latest blast of factory smoke. In which case they're probably trying to get out of London as quickly as possible.”
"I can’t blame them if they are,” Victor said, sighing. “I know if I had wings, I’d be out of here as fast as they could carry me.”
"Same here,” Alice nodded. She tilted her head at him. “Someone as enthusiastic about butterflies as you must think about flying a lot.”
"I do,” Victor admitted, eyes far away and face peaceful. “Flying’s always been one of my greatest dreams. Soaring and floating through the air, able to go wherever I please, no cares, no worries. . . .” He turned his head back to the sky, biting his lip as his happiness fled. “Too bad it’ll never come true. Silly dream, really.”
“Not silly at all, Victor,” Alice murmured as the clouds above them were replaced with cards, and the castle faded back into existence around her. “Not in the slightest.” Flight had been a wish of hers too, ever since she’d first seen a bird. That's why she'd driven her mother to distraction on rainy days by jumping off tables and chairs, and why her skirts in Wonderland were blessed with such incredible powers of lift. She jumped into the air and bounced her way across the room, spreading a cushion of feathers across the Spades and Hearts with a giggle. "If only I could teach you how to do this, Victor! It's not quite flight, but it's more than close enough!"
Fun had, she leaned against a red-tinted card back and closed her eyes, letting the rest of the memory play out. Victor's confession about his dream had led to a discussion of where they'd actually go if they only had the power. Alice had expressed her desire to see the fabled New York City in the States ("Yes, I know it's another city, but it would at least be a different one – and I've heard such stories about the people and the places!"), and Victor had admitted an interest in seeing Paris before he died (“or afterward, if it’s easier to travel Downstairs,” he’d joked). Then there was the Wild West, and the Amazon rainforest, and darkest Africa, and closed-off Japan. . .and before they'd known it, it was time for tea and they'd had to rush back to the Home so as not to upset their doctor. The cheerfulness of the whole experience had lingered with her for the rest of the week, and Victor had never looked healthier and happier. Even now, that single perfect day was almost enough to balance out a fortnight of pain and despair. If only I could have summoned up the Deadtime Watch, and frozen everything just at that moment. . . .
She picked up the last of the teeth, then walked through the miniature castle’s (thankfully wide-open) back door. A pair of Twos of Clubs waited for her, forming the start of another path. Alice went to the side of the first and looked down at the mottled white and green below. The drop was massive, more than enough to kill, but she didn’t feel the slightest twinge of fear. Instead, there was just a surge of excitement at being so high up. She lifted her head to the cards that flew in loops and curlicues across the bright blue of the sky, dashing through the meandering clouds and generally being delightfully absurd. The air was crisp and clean, the sun warm on her cheeks. The whole world overflowed with a sense of absolute freedom. “You would love it here, wouldn’t you Victor?” she whispered. “No trees or grass, but I think you’d forgive their absence just this once.” She touched the edge of the card with her toe and imagined sitting there with him, side by side, legs dangling in the open air, watching the cards and feeling like nothing in the world could ever bother them again. . . . It would be heaven. It truly would.
But Victor wasn’t here, and she had a job to do. And someone to visit, Alice reminded herself with a wince. Her eyes unwillingly found the wall of the castle again, and the crowned heart that stained the reverse of every Club, Diamond, Spade, and Heart. A grim reminder that the peace of this world was only a temporary reprieve. She ran her fingers through her hair, squeezing her eyes closed briefly. Why did such a lovely place have to lead to such an awful one? Couldn’t Cardbridge have been linked to a realm other than Queensland? Maybe, after I see what’s going on with the Queen, I can make it so it goes somewhere else. I don't care if cards are her domain. It may be her kingdom, but it’s my bloody world.
With an annoyed sigh, she proceeded down the path that formed card by card underneath her feet. Well, I've got a little time here yet. Enough to soak up some more peace and contentment. Something to keep me going through the realm of flesh and blood. And you know what? Once I leave the Queen behind, I don't care where Wonderland, or that blasted cat, tries to drag me next. I'm going to find Victor, and I'm going to tell him every last detail about this place. It's not much recompense for everything I've put him through – especially with Mrs. White's latest revelation, ugh – but it's all I can give. Hopefully he'll find it adequate.
“Oh no – this is it? Really?”
The blue-spiraled mushroom silently asserted that it was. Alice pouted and twirled a lock of hair around her finger. This just plain wasn't fair. She'd barely been here any time at all – certainly not long enough to satisfy her craving for adventure. There were so many other castles floating in the distance, towers reaching toward the sky, just begging to be explored! Not to mention that it was just so generally pleasant here – when was the last time she'd had "pleasant" in Wonderland? Even the Vale had contained pockets of Ruin upon her arrival. This realm was pure and untouched. Why couldn’t she stay a little longer?
Because the longer I stay here, the longer I’m making a fool of myself in the real world, she reminded herself, shaking her head. And the more likely a certain monarch is getting into a position to wreak havoc upon my mind once more. You knew when you started this detour wouldn't last forever. Time to buckle down and be a warrior again.
Even with that scolding, though, it was hard to get her feet to move. She lingered by one of the playfully-leaning turrets of Spades and Clubs, gazing out at the vast blue. The cards still whirled and soared, a magnificent dance without beginning or end. Beyond that were the castles, and beyond them? Who knew. Maybe a few last bits of Hatter's factory, or a tiny chunk of unscathed Vale. Anything was possible here. She sucked in a deep breath, fingers idly tracing the bumps of the Three next to her. "No matter what else my mind may deny me – I hope I never forget this." Then, before she could succumb to the urge to dart backward and see if she could trick the cards into forming a fresh path, she turned, dashed to the mushroom, and bounced.
The by-now-familiar blank white fog enveloped her as she fell back to earth, holding her safely in its grip while the world restructured itself. Then her feet touched down – on a floor of Hearts?
For a split-second, Alice was excited. Perhaps she'd misunderstood the mushroom, perhaps this was a shortcut across to the next castle or the start of an even grander slide – then the rest of the world came into being, and proved her initial instincts correct. The brilliance of the summer sky was gone, replaced by a dull wintery haze that tinted everything in sight the color of dirt. The sun did not burn bright and proud here – instead, it pushed weakly through the thin clouds, as if afraid to show its face. The cards around her stood tall and firm as ever, but were dingy and wan thanks to the faded light. Only the Hearts stood out, the redness of their suit's symbol smoldering in the musty air. Alice turned away from a slit-eyed Jack to see what lay ahead. A slide did in fact await her, but it was a far cry from the ones she'd enjoyed in Cardbridge. This one was a slope of heavy gray stone, splattered with globs of smoking Ruin and – are those dried-out eyeballs?! Eugh. . . . The world had been turned inside-out, with everything pleasurable now made distressing and disgusting.
Well – not quite everything, she allowed, lifting a now-gloved hand before her face. New realm, new dress, as always. This one had clearly taken its inspiration from the castles she'd so reluctantly left, making her a vision in red, black, and gold. Glittering hearts paraded down her chest encased in crimson stripes, and circled the edges of her dark bow. Her apron was cut in a rough diamond shape, and topped with an upside-down Spade. Below that, the Chesslands got a thought with a checkerboard of gold and black. Craning her neck, Alice saw that even Hollow Yves had taken up the theme, his skull having been carved into a scowling white heart. She smiled and did a little twirl, letting her skirts floof out. This wasn't a style she would have chosen for herself, but it was quite beautiful all the same. A gown truly fit for a –
Alice slowed to a stop, the dungeon of meat and mucus vividly pink and wet in her mind's eye. She still couldn't quite bring herself to believe it. The Queen of Hearts, alive again. How could she have let her mind collapse so completely as to allow that? The Queen was everything she hated about herself – her madness, her darkness, her – her spoiled-bratness. She’d spent the longest, hardest year of her life working to cleanse such taint from her psyche. Dueling monster upon monster, facing bitter cold and boiling heat, enduring vicious teeth and claws and tongues, all to face–
the stygian void that lurked behind the Queen's throne. Alice stood, battered but still unbeaten, upon a blasted hunk of rock hovering in the black, watching the bulging, monstrous tumor that had once been a woman lurch up before her from the emptiness. The Queen greeted her with a scream that would have deafened a Boojum, but Alice barely flinched. She'd rid the creature of almost all her weapons, and now she just needed one last shot. . . .
The belly-mouth gaped wide again, and Alice took her chance. The Vorpal Blade whipped end over end, an unerring missile seeking the monarch's lifeblood. There was a rather unsatisfying "spluch" as it made contact – but then the Queen slumped, shrieking defiance one last time before her misshapen flesh burst apart into bloody chunks–
And that was supposed to have been the end of it. Her happy ending, in fact. She’d walked out of that arena, and the asylum, drained but optimistic. Killing the Queen hadn't guaranteed her sanity, but it was a very solid start, she'd thought. Surely she was due a bit of good luck after over a decade of misery. So she'd walked through the gates of Rutledge with the highest of hopes for her future.
And we see where that got me, Alice thought with a sigh, rubbing her face. She'd been disabused of most of her illusions after a mere week at Houndsditch – well, those that hadn't started trying to engage her in conversation. The world had proved itself a cruel and cold place, one where the battle to survive was never-ending. But even with her cynicism and gloom growing by the day, she'd clung to the memory of her victory, positive that at least she'd made that much of a difference for herself. Now, even that was in doubt. Had the Vorpal Blade flown as true as she'd hoped? Had the Queen ever truly died? Or had she just been biding her time, waiting for the opportune moment to make another bid for power? Alice bit her lip, shivering. Had she been destined to return to Rutledge from the moment she left it?
No, she thought, brow furrowed and jaw tight. I promised myself I would never return, and I intend to keep that promise. Perhaps my ending will always be bittersweet, but I can at least stop the bitterness from taking over. The Queen won’t send me back into the festering grip of the asylum again! I will be more than a ranting lunatic or a mindless vegetable! If I have to kill her a hundred times over, I will!
. . .Then again, Caterpillar hinted that she’d changed. In my latest experience, change is about as horrible as you can get, but – is it possible that she could be an ally in my fight against the Ruin? The Duchess and the Hatter changed sides with ease after I slaughtered them in cold blood. Neither were particularly helpful, but they never made any attempts against my person. Could it be she’s back to her old self – the one who ranted and raved but didn’t actually care if any of her subjects lost their heads?
The tentacles slithered back into her mind, pulsing with rage. . . .No, definitely not. But I suppose I should at least give her the chance to speak for herself. Caterpillar seemed insistent on my trying that much. And if she’s still bent on dominating the whole of Wonderland and damn the consequences. . .well, my Blade will be happy to drink her blood once more.
Purpose reaffirmed, Alice walked to the edge of the grimy platform, gazing out at the horizon as she prepared to make her way down the slide. The stormy haze prevented her from seeing much, but she could make out brown hills lumping up in the distance. And what looked like the fossilized remains of old trees and oversized vines curling around the –
Wait. Those weren’t vines. Those were tentacles. Alice arched an eyebrow, taking in the tattered remains of the Queen’s favorite appendages. “Interesting development,” she mumbled, dropping onto the slide and smashing an eyeball with her feet. “What’s really going on with you, Your Majesty?”