Chapter 18: Of Queens, Kings, and Unwanted Usurpers
"You know. . .I really did expect it to be – pinker."
Alice frowned as she walked across the jagged hunk of stone that had once been the start of a long and elegant bridge. Queensland looked uglier than ever – ugly and dry. She'd gotten a few glimpses of it as she'd navigated the twists and turns of the slide – rotten chunks of tentacle curling overhead, shattered towers reaching toward the sky in the distance – but it had taken landing in the very heart of the realm (no pun intended) to show her the true desolation of the world. The ground (what she could see of it) was as brown as the Vale of Doom, baked rock hard by the steadfast heat of the sun. Here and there, huge fissures opened wide, swallowing chunks of debris crumbling off the once-proud path. The air was filled with a sour-smelling mist, blurring her vision and making it just that much harder to breathe. Her Majesty's favorite appendages, so recently a threat, now stood stiff as dead trees in the light breeze, their flesh desiccated and pockmarked with large holes, or hanging off in tatters. Alice got the feeling that if she touched one, it would dissolve into a cloud of dust. And the castle – when she'd first seen Heart Palace, she'd been horrified by just how alive it looked, built of pulsating bricks of red flesh, pouring fountains of blood and bile, and of course the ever-present tentacles. Now. . .now everything was dull and gray, the fountains dried up, the bricks turned to stone, the tentacles fossilized and holding on through sheer habit. There was still a grandness to it, but it was the grandness of decay – of watching one of the great wonders of the world be reclaimed by time. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as they said. But it makes no sense. How can she be alive if her domain's in such disarray? The Queen of Hearts I knew would have never put up with this for a moment.
A flash of orange and white and a familiar tinkling noise drew Alice's attention upward, to another hunk of bridge leaning over her own. "Back to admire your handiwork?" the Cheshire Cat asked, grinning at her from above a heart shaped in rusted wrought iron. "Returning to the scene of the crime?"
Oh no. Nobody got to tell her off for what she'd done to the Queen. Especially not Cheshire. "It had to be done, Cat, you said so yourself," she reminded the infuriating feline, hands on her hips as she glared. "'You and this Red Queen cannot both survive. She is a cancer in your body. Excise her or perish.'"
Cheshire's smile turned wicked. "Well, she was the face of evil, in the heart of darkness," he agreed, ears bending back as he leaned forward. "But evil's face changes rather quickly these days, and while her heart is still dark, it's not as dark as Ruin."
"Maybe not, but she's still a monster," Alice snapped. "Why defend her in the slightest, Cat? She didn't treat you too well last time – lost your head as I recall." Her arms dropped to her sides as the memory flared up like a forgotten log in the fireplace. Cheshire vanishing and reappearing in a constant dance, smile in place and voice calm but eyes more anxious than she'd ever seen. . .the door behind him suddenly creaking open as he tried to explain why the Red Queen was such a threat. . .the tentacle slamming down on him, cutting off his words in an agonized scream. . .his body falling limp in front of her, neck gushing blood, his head tumbling across the floor, still smiling despite it all. . .and then she was on her knees, throat raw with passion as she shrieked and sobbed. . .he'd been the last one, the final friend to stand by her side. . .the Queen had taken everything from her. . . .
She jerked herself back to the present, glad suddenly of the wind blowing her hair into her face so as to hide the threatening tears. No, she reminded herself. Don't dwell on that. You avenged him – him and Gryphon and the White Queen and all the others. They're f-well, Gryphon's not fine, and I don't know how the Pale Realm fares, but Cheshire's as well as a cat so skeletal can be. You threw every last bit of pain she'd inflicted on you back in her face so she could choke on it! For all the good it did. . .ugh! Why does nothing stay dead that I want to stay dead? What's next? Will the Jabberwock suddenly reconstitute himself from the ether so as to make my life even more miserable? His wings had better not come with the rest of him if that's the case; trying to hit him while he's in the air is a task and a half–
"It's a unique person who can get lost in thought when she already is."
Trust Cheshire to always know the right way to annoy her out of her daze. "And it's a unique cat who can lose one of his nine lives to a beast and then turn around and give it the benefit of the doubt," she snapped back. "The Queen tore Wonderland to pieces, and now you claim she wasn't wicked?"
"Oh no, no one's saying that. She was completely deranged," Cheshire said, tail flicking from side to side. "The world was a much better place when you picked up her crown. But now you've put it down. A monster she was – but at least she was our monster." He gestured with a paw toward the crumpled remains of the palace. "You must speak to her. What's left of her anyway."
But he was already gone, vanishing just as his perch succumbed to gravity and tumbled into the abyss. Alice swallowed and looked back out across the shattered landscape. "Off with her head," drifted on the wind, and whether it was a memory or the Queen's true voice Alice couldn't be sure. She bit her lip. Cross this insanely dangerous domain to speak to a woman – a thing– that had spent almost a decade twisting and corrupting Wonderland into a hell worthy of the worst fire-and-brimstone preachers, and a year doing everything in its power to murder the world's savior and condemn them all to agony. . .and ask it for its help. That was where this search for memory, for closure, had brought her. Was it really worth it?
"What an inquisitive little girl you are! Not that I mind. Any daughter of mine is going to have a well-developed brain before we send her out into the world."
"You do set a lovely tea table, my darling. Oh, you learned from your friend the Hatter? I was wondering why you'd set more places than dolls."
"Don't worry, Alice – Reginald's not worth the attention. And if he even thinks about being mean to you again, I'll be on him like a rabid dog. Sisters look out for each other."
Alice set her jaw and started forward. Yes. It was.
"Oh, go away!"
The ground shook as Alice slammed the Hobby Horse – now heavy black steel, with an enraged glare to match – into it, sending the last few Card Guards flying. "I was hoping I'd slaughtered the lot of you after my first assault on the castle!" she snapped as they twitched and groaned. Then she paused and considered her enemies, all blue-tinted claws and trailing guts. "Actually, I did, didn't I? I simply didn't expect you to get back up again."
Most of the current group didn't, the fight having literally been beaten out of them. One lone Diamond, however, managed to rise to his feet in a glow of red light. He lunged like a clumsy lion, roaring defiance from a skull carved with the image of his suit. Alice nimbly dodged his fingers and jabbed her Vorpal Blade through the Diamond-shaped hole in his middle. "You should be proud – you and your compatriots are easily one of the most disturbing things I've seen in all my travels," she commented as she cut the monster down for good. "I guess I should really just be grateful your particular undead state renders you incapable of using weapons." She grimaced as she recalled the stab of sharp diamonds in her flesh and the deafening explosions of homing hearts. "The Drowned Sailors throwing bombs my way was quite enough, thank you."
The Diamond gave no response but a last pathetic moan as it crumbled away to dust. Alice flicked the blood off her blade, then rounded the courtyard gathering up the spoils of war. Golden teeth and glittering roses aplenty this time – Wonderland was getting generous in her old age. Then again, this place is so permeated with death, there's probably meta-essence to spare, Alice thought, wrinkling her nose.
It was true – there were more corpses here than just Card Guards. The dried and dusty excuse for a front garden was littered with scenes of a different battle, one that had gone well for neither side. A White Rook lay half-buried in the dirt to her left, his once-mighty ivory riddled with holes. A Red Bishop stood before her, tangled in vines, like some weird topiary. Behind lay a pair of Knights, the White snapped from his base, the Red so rotted he barely resembled either a horse or a human. There would be no more war for this lot – the ultimate checkmate had come to both.
"Ergh. . . ."
Well, almost. With a start, Alice realized that the White King – trapped in the archway that led to the castle proper, wrapped in thick tentacles that time had turned to stone – had somehow survived the slaughter. Was this the Queen's idea of a joke – keep him alive just to watch his troops wither and die, without a friendly hand to save them? "Your Majesty?"
"Alice?" The King strained his weak eyes, the only bit of him aside from his mouth that he could move. "Are you here to put an end to the game?"
"I'm surprised it hasn't ended already," Alice said, climbing up the broken stone to visit the monarch properly. "The Red Kingdom's in ruins, but you're no better off."
The White King sighed softly. "When you defeated her, I tried to reclaim the castle," he explained, the echoes of old battles underlying his words. "But I was set upon by her monstrosities. The malignant royal bitch still reigns."
"What language from someone so regal! Not that I disagree," Alice said, hands on her hips as she smirked. Then she frowned as something poked at her brain. "But why did you need to take the castle at all? I know you and Red are always tangled up in something or other, but my defeating their King had to count for something."
"No rules, remember?" the White King responded, tone incredibly bitter. "Even without her King, she was still the most powerful piece on the board. She had to be stopped entirely." His frown grew deeper. "Never mind that she was never supposed to be a player."
"Never supposed to be a player?" Alice echoed, even more puzzled. That made no sense even for Wonderland – and especially not for the Looking-Glass Kingdom. Of course the Red Queen was a player, she –
She. . .
"Where do you come from? And where are you going? Look up, speak nicely, and don't twiddle your fingers all the time."
"It's time for you to answer now; open your mouth a little wider when you speak, and always say 'Your Majesty.'"
"You may call it 'nonsense' if you like, but I've heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!"
"You can't be a Queen, you know, until you've passed the proper examination."
"It's too late to correct it; when you've once said a thing, that fixes it, and you must take the consequences."
. . .wasn't the Queen of Hearts.
The jolt was fantastic, nearly making Alice stumble off the edge of the little cliff behind her. How had she managed to mix the two? Forget that they were in charge of two vastly different kingdoms; they were also almost as different as night and day! The Queen of Hearts was a passionate toddler, capable of throwing fits on top of fits; the Red Queen was a bad-tempered schoolteacher, more pedantic than even Nanny's old friend Prickett! The only thing they really had in common was their favorite colors! And yet somehow, once she'd introduced them to each other, they'd gotten along fairly well –
Until the Queen of Hearts needed a new army, Alice realized, teeth digging into her lip. She must have killed the original Queen to seize control of the Reds. And when I finally showed up to set things right – I thought it odd that those miners referred to her as the Red Queen, but it didn't seem important. And soon enough I was using the same epithet – and oh dear, did I ever take the consequences! "My apologies," she said, pressing a gloved hand to her forehead. "What with the madness I had to deal with the first time around, the fact she shouldn't have that title slipped my mind. A lot of things did, honestly," she added in a lower voice, thinking of crystal houses, glittering glasses, and glowing syringes. So many memories buried, so many old wounds bleeding anew. . . .
She shook her head and met her friend's gaze again. "I'll strip her of that particular role later – for now, I have to stay on her good side," she said, though not without a touch of regret. "I'm here to petition her for help in saving Wonderland, insane as it sounds. I must get inside."
"The only way in is through me," the White King declared, lifting his chin a fraction. "Sacrifices must be made."
The King had a talent for making echoes of the past reverberate through her head, it seemed. Something about the word "sacrifice" put her right back in the asylum, Pris standing over her with a bucket of water. "Oh, I know you don't like the cold, dearie, but it's not like anyone else gets any better," she said in mock-sympathetic tones."If we started showing you special treatment, then where would we be? Sacrifices must be made and all that!" Or perhaps instead she was in the hallway at Houndsditch, listening to Nell Van Dort say goodbye to her son: "Behave yourself, and listen to this one for a change, will you? We've all done our part to help you get better! You know the things I've sacrificed!" Hell, the White King himself wasn't free from blame on this – who was it who'd sent his own daughter into danger with her when she'd gone to checkmate Red and save the White Queen? Alice scowled, false fingernails digging into her hipbones. "Those who say so usually mean they should be made by others."
"Cynicism is a disease!" the White King informed her. "It can be cured."
"I find cynicism very valuable in keeping me alive," Alice retorted.
"In the proper amounts only. You'll die a slow death from lack of hope."
"I don't lack hope, I just–" Victor's face popped into her mind, smiling shyly, stubborn against all odds, still with a touch of wide-eyed idealism despite coming up on a year in the East End. "–let it go around outside of me," she decided, indulging in a brief smile of her own. With a sigh, she added, "And I already know what you're going to say on the subject of me and matrimony, so do you mind if we skip it?"
To her surprise, the White King chuckled. "No use in belaboring the point," he agreed. "If memory serves, you'll come to your senses soon enough." His expression turned serious again. "But hear this – once inside the castle, beware the outsized killer who patrols her domain. Never confront him – he is invincible. My wife made that mistake." His eyes narrowed. "Now cut me loose. I'll show you the meaning of sacrifice."
The man meant business, anyone could see that. But Alice still hesitated, taking a moment to walk up and down the outer wall. Perversely, time had apparently passed this piece of the edifice by. No crumbling gaps, no loose bricks, no fibrous membranes hiding a hole. Nothing at all she could use to slip through any other way. She sighed as she returned to the King and summoned her Hobby Horse. "I don't want to do this," she whispered, stomach heavy. "You're one of the few who always treated me decently."
"If that blasted Train keeps running rampant, I'm doomed anyway," the White King said, though his voice was kind. "I'd rather be useful in my death."
Alice bit her lip and nodded. "Godspeed, White King," she whispered. Then, taking a deep breath, she raised the Horse high and swung with all her might.
The ivory, cracked and brittle with age, seemed to explode as the muzzle of the Horse met the stomach of the King. A fine shower of white dust filled the air, swallowing the tentacles and dragging them into nothingness as well. Alice coughed and waved the cloud from her face. Nothing left of the monarch now, except half his face, twisted in agony, and his tarnished crown hanging from the very top of the arch. Alice curtsied – it only seemed right. "Checkmate, friend – for now. Once I'm done, I'll return you to the Pale Realm – and the true Red Queen to her Crimson." She jogged through the newly-cleared opening, glaring at the deep scarlet doors of the entrance hall. "As for the false one. . .she has a lot to answer for."
The remaining Club tumbled to the ground in a spray of blood, leaving behind a small rose and a handful of teeth. Alice swept them up with a wave of her arm, sighing. "You know, I shouldn't be this bored with you already," she informed the crumbling body. "But two packs in, and I've already realized you're all the same. A flash of fangs, a stumbling snatch – all you've got going for you is the fact you can rise from the dead again, and even that happens only once. And only if I don't get a chance to crush the life out of you with the Horse beforehand." She idly twirled the Vorpal Blade on the tip of her finger. "I guessed from the state of the castle I wasn't going to get an enthusiastic welcome, but if you're the only soldiers the Queen has left, then I'm not even sure why I was–"
A wet spluching noise cut through her musings like a knife through butter (or perhaps the Blade through Jabberwock flesh). Alice spun around to see fresh blood spurting through the hardened web of flesh covering the far wall of what she'd guessed was a receiving room of some sort. The blade of an enormous scythe poked through the cut, followed shortly by a red-booted foot and a mass of pink tentacles. Alice hastily flicked the Blade back into her hand and braced herself. All right, this should be rather more interesting. . . .
Another squish, a soft grunt – and the biggest Card Guard Alice had ever seen emerged from the wound, shaking red from its shoulders. It was truly a hideous beast – a terrible Frankensteinain conglomeration of Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts. Stitches crisscrossed the creature's mismatched body, and his arms and legs were riddled with pits and holes. The only reason he seemed capable of any movement were the tentacles that squirmed through his back and sides, holding him together despite all odds. One particularly large one had even kindly formed itself into a kind of ruff to support his skull-like head, while two smaller ones poked through his eye sockets, wriggling like fat pink maggots. His down-turned mouth, full to the brim with shark-sharp teeth, was the only bit of his face she could get a proper look at. The rest of his head was covered by a pink Joker's cap, with two striped horns completing his devil's facade. His scythe was similarly striped, complimenting his marriage of red and black – though what interested Alice the most about it was the shining hook on its business end. "Beware the outsized killer," the White King had warned so recently – well, this was surely him.
The beast – Alice mentally named him The Executioner, since who else could he be in service to the Queen of Hearts? – didn't take long to spot her. He glared at her, letting out a deep, furious roar before lumbering forward. Alice shot backward in a flutter of blue wings. "Oh yes, now this is a challenge," she said, strafing left and right so he couldn't get a proper lock on her. Then she smirked and pulled her (now shiny silver) Teapot Cannon from the ether. "Or, well, you would be," she qualified, charging it up to the limit of its power, "if not for this!"
PI-CHUCK! The steaming grenade flew straight and true, landing right on the Executioner's head and coating him with boiling tea. Alice switched back to her Blade and darted in, ready to carve the monster's flesh once it –
Did – did that thing just laugh?!
Alice didn't have more than a second to ponder the question – the scythe whirled through the air, and only the fact that she could jump like a kangaroo stopped her getting cleaved in two. But that's not right at all! she thought, racing away from another slice. That Cannon stuns anything and everything! He can't possibly be immune! Whipping around, she yanked it out and tried another blast.
The Executioner didn't even pretend to notice this one – he just marched toward her, slow but steady as the proverbial tortoise. Alice switched to the Pepper Grinder, but this had even less effect – the peppercorns just bounced off him, as if his body was hardest stone. No, no, something has to work – She waited for him to strike again, dodged around to his rear, and went at his leg with the Vorpal Blade.
And her most loyal weapon, the one that had helped fell her most dangerous and deadly foes – couldn't even inflict the equivalent of a paper-cut.
The beast's mocking laughter at least gave her a chance to put some distance between them. Unfortunately, there wasn't much room to be had here, and with her way back blocked by doors sealed shut with fresh meaty growth, Alice was quickly reduced to running in circles to stay one step ahead of her foe. Didn't I tell you he was invincible? the King's voice asked in her head.
"I thought to you and yours, not me!" Alice replied, bursting into butterflies to avoid a lethal swipe. "Oh, I'm an idiot! Don Quixote had a better chance with his windmills – and without risk of decapitation!"
"A prudent exit is no less so for being hasty!"
Alice's head jerked right to see the Cheshire Cat atop a tiny flight of stairs right next to the candle-strewn wall the Executioner had sliced through. Before she could demand to know where she should exit to, he turned around and shoved the double doors behind him open with a paw. "The ferret is certainly up your dress this time, Alice! Run!"
"Thank you!" Alice yelled, choosing to ignore his comment in favor of bolting for the opening. The Executioner turned to follow, but she slammed the doors closed behind her before he could catch up. She leaned heavily against them, taking a moment to catch her breath. She had no illusions the fragile wood would stop the monster for long, but it gave her maybe half a minute to prepare herself, at least. She looked in all directions as she gathered her wits – in a hall now, or what was left of one. God knew where it led – if it led anywhere at all. On the other hand, I only need it to lead away from here! Forcing her burning legs to move, she took off for the far end.
And not a moment too soon – with an unearthly growl, the Executioner burst through the doors, tentacles squishing most unpleasantly. He promptly resumed his pursuit, spinning his scythe before him like a whirling windmill of doom. If I gave him that idea, that would be irony at its finest – and most painful, Alice thought, grimacing as she heard the blade scrape against the paving, sending sparks flying in her peripheral vision. Oh God where do I go where do I go where do I –
A flash of metal set into a mound of old flesh on the wall caught her eye, and she promptly shrunk, vanishing into the keyhole. The Executioner screamed rage behind her, and poked a long finger into the gap in an attempt to fish her out, but Alice was still running, and was soon out of his reach. She had no idea where this tiny tunnel of dried-out meat led either, and she didn't care. All she wanted to put as much distance between herself and that thing as possible.
It actually wasn't long at all before she reached the other end, popping back to her normal size in what looked like the castle's chapel. Alice leaned heavily on her knees in front of the wax-stained and flesh-twisted organ (the musical kind, though she wouldn't have been surprised to have been confronted with a giant fossilized heart), panting. "Oh. . .is that. . .now going. . .to be. . .a theme. . .around here?"
Cheshire flashed into existence beside her. "The Queen's guardian rarely leaves his filthy lair," he said, before smirking and touching her foot. "But you're special."
"Wonderful," Alice grumbled, rubbing her neck. "The last thing I need is to end up like Paul."
"This demesne does seem rather lacking in cockroaches."
Alice glared at him. "This isn't a time for joking! If I die before I can see Victor again. . .you lot just couldn't wait for me to get back to Houndsditch and say I'm sorry, could you?"
"Keeping royalty waiting is bad manners, you know." He sighed as her gaze sharpened. "Alice, if you trust me on nothing else, trust me on this – we would all love nothing more than to let you spend as much time with that boy as you wish. But the situation is urgent."
"I know, I know," Alice grumbled, wiping sweat out of her eyes. "I had to remind myself of that earlier. It's just – it stings, it really does."
"Worse than that will happen if you don't keep on your course," Cheshire replied. "But you're welcome to come to an epiphany or two about him among everything else."
"I've had my epiphany about him – he's not insane," Alice shot back. "And he needs someone to save him from having to spend any more time in that horrible Home!"
Cheshire tilted his head, ears cocked toward her. "Why, fair enough. An epiphany about yourself, then."
"Isn't that the point of this whole trip? Especially this leg of it?"
Cheshire's grin widened. "At last you start using that marvelous brain of yours. I look forward to seeing what other knowledge you acquire."
And then he vanished, leaving Alice to roll her eyes. "Vexatious feline," she muttered, straightening up. "The only knowledge that I'm likely to gain here is bad." She frowned, the image of a burning house and an innocent cat leaping out her window flickering across her vision. "But then again. . .perhaps that's just the sort of knowledge I need."
"'Waste Wing.' Well, I'll give you this, Your Majesty – you certainly have good sense in naming the various parts of your castle. Though, personally, I consider this whole wretched maze of a palace a waste."
The air seemed to grow slightly colder, but the Queen didn't otherwise respond – apparently the woman had run out of angry proclamations and taunts for the moment. Alice shrugged and passed under the flaking red letters. "Also, don't think your little trick just now will stop me taking the Reds away from you," she added as she climbed the stairs. "I've been White's pawn before, and earned my own queendom through it – even if it didn't last." She stepped into the grand remains of another wide hall, this one hung with tattered red curtains. "Forcing me through the occasional distressingly simple puzzle just convinces me all the more you shouldn't be allowed to play chess."
Alice started and turned. Behind her now lay a heavy iron gate, barring any return into the Least Wing. She rolled her eyes. "You missed," she informed the ceiling. "And as if I'm going to object to anything that keeps that damn pet of yours off my back." Ugh – why on earth had she asked for a challenge in this horrible place? Dodging death by scythe was already fraying her nerves. The only good thing she could say about the bastard was that he didn't distinguish between friend and foe – if you were in the way of his swing, you were going to meet your maker. It at least kept her from having to worry too much about the lesser Guards and ubiquitous Ruin that kept popping up with him.
Oink, oink. . . .
Alice's gaze shifted forward slightly. Mounted on one of the stone pillars lining the left wall was the closest pig snout she'd seen in a while, snuffling away right above her head. "You know, it really would have been in your best interest to send the Duchess into hiding again," she commented with a grin as she pulled out her Pepper Grinder (carved like a boar now, with flaming eyes). "My hunt for these grunting little – creatures? – has led me to all sorts of goodies I'm sure you don't want me to have. Or are you as addicted to bacon as she?"
The Queen still refused to speak, though at least she didn't try to send anything toppling onto her head either. Alice let her be and focused on the snout. After a few seconds of intense firing, the sneeze she was hoping for echoed through the chamber. As it did, a door Alice hadn't noticed before fell open a crack. She promptly slipped through, hoping for a bulging basket. I'm almost done upgrading, but Yves told me both my Horse and Cannon can be transformed once more. . . .
Sadly, she was stymied again – behind the door was a little side room with not much to recommend it beyond the usual display of mangled masonry and fossilized flesh. But there were a couple of golden teeth to collect in the corners – and a shimmering house set between two heart altars, beckoning her to touch. Alice crossed her fingers before caressing the crystal's surface. "Please be a nice one, please. . . ."
Lizzie nearly fell off her bed in surprise, her book flying away and hitting the wall. Alice was torn between laughter and running to her sister's aid – she compromised by doing both at once. "Are you all right, Lizzie?" she asked between giggles, trying to push her upright again.
"Yes, yes," Lizzie assured her, waving her away as she regained her balance. "Though I'm not sure I can say the same for Mr. Bell's prose. . .what were you thinking, scaring me like that?" she added, frowning at her sibling.
"I wanted to ask if you would play hopscotch with me," Alice replied, all innocence.
"And the fact I had the door shut didn't mean anything to you?"
"I knew you weren't getting dressed. Again."
"Look, it's not my fault that society – and tailors – demand an adult woman wear at least two gowns per day." Lizzie shook her head. "I was reading, Alice. You know I want privacy when I read."
"If you really wanted privacy, you'd lock your door," Alice said, imitating Nanny's favorite scolding position with her hands on her hips. "That's what Mama and Papa do when they want me to keep out."
"Well, I'm not Mama or Papa, and I think a closed door is perfectly reasonable for privacy purposes," Lizzie declared, folding her arms and putting her nose in the air. "A locked room is little more than a cage. A prison by another name. I despise concealment of any kind."
"Oh, so I should tell Papa about how you climbed out the window when he grounded you? "
Alice giggled as her sister's stunned, furious face crumbled away, revealing the Queen's castle once again. "What a little brat I was! I'm surprised you didn't give me a wallop then and there. Though really, to say one despises concealment and then threaten me to hold my tongue about that. . .oh, but I shouldn't tease. You really were a very open and–"
"The key, Lizzie! Unlock the door! You'll burn!"
Unlock the door?
Unlock the door?
Humor vanished in an instant, driven out by cold shock. Why would Papa say such a thing? Lizzie had never locked her door in her life! Not even in the wake of one of the kitchen boys surprising her in dishabille while summoning her to breakfast! "Of course it was embarrassing, Elizabeth – that's why you need to lock your door!" Mama had scolded her afterward, but Lizzie had stuck by her guns: "I don't like feeling like I can't go where I wish! Besides, usually the only ones who insist on intruding while I'm dressing are the cats." She should have been the first one to escape the night of the fire! There was absolutely no reason for her to have locked everyone else out!
Unless. . .someone locked her in.
The very thought rattled Alice's bones. If that was the case. . . . Oh dear God – was someone trying to murder my sister?! But who would dare do such a thing? People liked Lizzie – she almost never quarreled with the servants (and they were all at their own homes by the time it started anyway), and she had plenty of friends around town. I can't think of a single enemy she might have –
The undergraduates. God knows she sent enough of them away with their tails between their legs. . .but these were students at Oxford! Intelligent and well-bred young men! Surely none of them could have been so broken up by his rejection to try – to try –
"Was it the Awful One again?"
The doors banged against the pillars as Alice flew out of the side chamber, eyes as bright with fury as her Pepper Grinder's. The pieces were coming together now, and the picture they formed. . . . Which one of you bastards tried to kill my family?!
"Once the bounder followed me into the ladies at Waterloo station! I had to call the attendant!"
"Oh, so that's what she meant by 'hoping I'd be in it again' back in Cardbridge. . .and I thought this lurker couldn't get any worse. . . ."
Alice shuddered as she came out of the memory, suddenly glad she hadn't had anything to eat for a while. Surely it would have all come up again after that revelation. One must wonder how I managed to forget the extent of poor Lizzie's hounding by this bastard, she thought, slicing through the withered pustules that also occupied this tiny hollow in the Queen's castle's guts. Of course, one might also wonder why my older sister was telling all this to her eight-year-old sibling. . .then again, wasn't she afraid to tell Papa for some reason? I know she said she didn't want to tell the other girls in town for fear they'd call it 'romantic' – we see what reading too much Gothic literature with brooding, obsessive male leads gets you. Oh, Lizzie. . .if it hadn't been for me, you would have felt utterly alone in the world, wouldn't you?
She sighed and shrank, running back through the keyhole and into the vessel-like tunnel that had led her here. Queensland was being disturbingly informative on the Saga of the Unwanted Suitor, and she didn't like it. The horrors of the Palace were quite enough without being confronted with the Ghost of Gits Past. And frankly, she wasn't sure just how much she could trust the bits of crystal offered up within these walls. She'd only just run into one supposedly from her mother, screaming for her to stay with them, not abandon them to the flames. . .only to see Rutledge's walls appear around her for a split-second before the memory faded. A recollection of a hallucination is quite the curious thing. . .but it throws everything else I've discovered into doubt. Is the Queen just toying with my mind, hoping to drive me further into madness by muddying my past beyond recognition?
Some inner instinct told her that wasn't the case, though – at least, not with the memory she'd just picked up. There'd been a solidity to it that defied it being a fabrication. Besides, muddying her past was more Bumby's purview than the Queen's. . .was he the one responsible for her not recalling the Saga before now? Something about that tickled her brain. . . .
Her feet went "squish" beneath her, and Alice decided the thought could wait until she'd found her way out of the meaty, blood-flecked landscape the Executioner had sent her to after their last confrontation. She wrinkled her nose as she gazed across this latest chamber of horrors – did everything here have to smell like a pile of steaks left out in the sun for too long? At least this one doesn't contain anything that pulses. . .or any of those pink-tinted Ruins. And I thought they couldn't be any more disturbing. . . .
Actually, there wasn't much to this chamber at all – just a few hunks of circular stone floating in mid-air over what she hoped was simple rubble. They looked just a bit too far apart to reach via even her incredibly useful float. . .she shrank, and a network of invisible platforms appeared, glowing purple against the swirling red storm filling the sky. That makes more sense, but how do I get to the first?
A pink-nailed hand gripping a chain on a platform to her left provided the answer – a couple of pairs of those twinned weights she'd had to navigate earlier clanked into position, ready to be manipulated at will. Alice already knew the drill with these – drop a Clockwork Bomb onto the first so it fell, run like mad over whatever ground (or crayon, in this case) was provided to the second, then immediately jump off it onto the higher piece of earth or stone it was next to or risk having to find your way back to do it all over again. Not quite as annoying as that one silly door in Cardbridge, but still something she'd had to practice a couple of times back in the Least Wing before getting quite right.
Now, though, it all felt old hat. She bounced her way across the first set with ease, tossing the Bomb down behind her carelessly and navigating the invisible path as if she did so for a living. (If only I could! Now that would be an interesting way of making my bread. . . .) The second pair seemed a bit trickier, being farther away from each other with a thinner path between, but Alice took advantage of her butterfly trick to speed things up a bit and made it onto the second weight with time to spare. Excellent! Now onto that ledge and – wait a moment, what's that?
She frowned, jumping in place on the weight to keep it from sinking down too much. There was another ledge below the one she was aiming for, littered with a few more of those dried-up eyeballs, a Shrinking Violet waving hello – and a crystal butterfly. Suddenly, she was faced with a dilemma. Did she jump down there and gather the goodies, knowing full well she wouldn't be able to reach the upper portion of the flesh-lined stone and would have to figure out a way to reset the weights? Or did she bypass them in favor of getting out of this horrible place faster and possibly miss something important? Victor's memories, while generally sweet, didn't seem to hold any special significance when compared with some of the others she had collected. . . .
On the other hand, a friendly voice in this land of stormy skies raining globs of blood and tongues crawling about on the freshly-skinned floor would be most welcome. I'm a sentimental fool, she decided, taking the leap and landing right next to the Violet. But you never know – something quite interesting might be hidden in this butterfly. At the very least, it has to be better than the images I've been getting from Lizzie's houses! Shuddering again over the thought of some sick fellow finding it advisable to invade the ladies' loo to proclaim his love, she smashed the eyeballs, let the Violet give her a quick massage, then shattered the memory.
"All right, I must admit – it does feel good to get outside after yesterday's pea-souper."
"See? I told you a little fresh air would do you good," Victor said, patting her back. "And before you say anything, yes, I'm well aware this hardly counts as 'fresh.'"
Alice tittered. "Oh dear, I've become much too predictable, haven't I? I'll have to think up some new insults for this city." Her expression soured. "If my wardrobe doesn't attempt to scare me out of my wits again. I suppose I should just be grateful I didn't completely wreck my umbrella."
"I'd – I'd happily buy you a new one."
"I know you would, but you shouldn't have to. If I destroy my possessions in a delusional haze, I should be the one responsible for replacing them. Makes me feel just a bit more in control of my own destiny."
"I can sympathize with that," Victor admitted, twiddling with his tie. "We should go into business for ourselves."
"Doing what? Me acting mental and you drawing it for the amusement of passers-by?"
"Some men like a girl who acts a little looney."
Alice started, then turned to glare at Jack Splatter. "If you'll forgive me for saying so, they can find some other lunatic. I don't like most men who like those kinds of girls."
"This is a private conversation," Victor added, eyebrows already dangerously flat.
"That why you're havin' it right in the middle of the street?" Splatter asked, lounging against a nearby streetlamp. He turned a piranha's smile onto Alice. "And you're missing out on a real opportunity there. Plenty of folks willing to give you a good pound or two for screaming and scratching and generally carryin' on."
"So send them to visit Rutledge. There's plenty of that in there," Alice said, turning away with her nose in the air.
"Most of those ain't so–" Splatter looked her up and down. Alice resisted the urge to press her arms over her chest. "Well, you ain't my type, but you're somebody's."
"She said no," Victor growled.
Ah yes, time again to get Victor out of here before he did something silly. . . . "Your clientele are not and never will be my type," she retorted, taking Victor's arm. "So you may as well hush."
Jack shook his head, expressing long-suffering. "Women! Come on now, Liddell – it's better than wallowing in Houndsditch's stink!"
"If you don't leave her alone, I'll – I'll punch you!"
Alice's jaw dropped. Oh shit – had Victor really said that to Jack Splatter?! The pimp himself was staring at her friend like he'd grown a second head. Desperately, she tried to get her feet to move before the knife came out –
Then, to her immense relief, Splatter began to laugh. "Really? A skinny whelp like you is gonna lay me flat?"
Victor started to reply, but Alice dragged him around the corner before the words could actually leave his throat. He stumbled after her, dragging his feet, teeth grinding audibly. "That – that despicable, horrible–"
"Yes, no one's going to argue those adjectives with you, Victor," Alice snapped as she got them down a nearby alley. "But you seem to have forgotten 'violent' and 'murderer' apply equally well!" She whirled and pushed him up against the wall. "What in God's name were you thinking, challenging him to a fight?! Are you that eager to get back to the Land of the Dead?"
"No one should talk to women the way Jack Splatter does!" Victor shot back, face red. "Particularly not to you! If I hear him suggest you should start w-working the streets again, I might just–" His fingers twitched as he struggled for the words. " Well, it wouldn't be very g-gentlemanly of me, that's all I'm saying."
"And I'm not letting you end up as just another faceless charge on the bastard's rap sheet because of me!"
The sentence seemed to echo across the wide, empty chamber, caught in the stiflingly humid air. Alice blinked as Victor's shoulders faded away beneath her fingers, then sighed and pressed her hands against her face. Oh yes, she remembered that day. Not too long before she'd finally lost herself completely on Witless's roof, wasn't it? Victor had been doing so well in just ignoring Splatter and his prostitutes, leaving them to get on with their own business – and then that had happened and he'd come this close to getting himself killed. Why must you be so overprotective of me sometimes? she demanded of his image in her head. Look, fine, it is nice to have someone willing to stand up for me. And I will give you that when you made good on that threat, you made very good on it. But it ended just as I feared – with Splatter well and truly out for your blood! Don't you know how much the idea of you dying scares me? Yes, you have an absolutely wonderful afterlife waiting for you (go away, guilt, we get I'm upset over being dragged here before visiting Houndsditch), so maybe it doesn't matter all that much to you but – how could I get up in the morning without seeing your half-asleep smile as you stumble out of your room? Who could I joke with and get the same absurdly-quiet laugh? What would it be like to have to walk down the street without feeling your long fingers tangled with mine? And who else would dance with me to the tune of a broken music box and make me feel halfway normal again? She swiped at her eyes and pretended she was shoving his shoulder. I've lost everyone else I've ever loved, Victor, I can't lose –
I can't –
I. . .
I love you.
Alice had thought she'd gotten rather good at tolerating massive shock during her sojourn in this realm, but this – this was like being hit by a dozen lightning bolts at once. She sat down with a heavy plop, heedless of the way the "ground" oozed beneath her, staring out across the hazy abyss and not seeing a damn bit of it. This was the reason Victoria White's sudden reappearance had left her nauseous, this was the precipice her mind had feared falling over, this was why he kept appearing in her mind again and again and again, almost as much as her sister. I love him. I love him.
The pathetic thing was, it was so bloody obvious how she felt from this vantage point. Victor was a relatively new addition to her life, unlike Radcliffe or Nanny or even Pris – why should he be given the honor of memories, if not because she wanted him close? And how many residents of Wonderland, not normally ones to pay that much attention to the world outside their domains, already knew of him and referred to him as "hers?" How many times had she dismissed someone bringing up the idea that they could be closer than friends? And even in the real world. . .she'd told him stories she'd shared with no one else, sought him out for comfort instead of standing alone like she was used to – she'd even allowed him the privilege of touching her, after years of associating that with pain and degradation. How had she missed this?
Because I'm incredibly good at denying anything that might give me pain, she thought, rubbing her face with a hand. Caterpillar told me as much, and the memories that have been popping up around here prove it. Besides, after my education at Rutledge and Houndsditch, the very notion of my falling in love was laughable. Lesson One: If you care about someone, they will leave you one day, perhaps violently, and it will feel like you have had all your insides torn out and wound on a stick. Lesson Two: Men are brutes and beasts and you're better off leaving them to their own designs. Lesson Three: If they see softness in you, they will break you. Never betray it. I built my walls so high and thick and strong. . .and then this pale stick of a man shows up in my life and I'm laughing and smiling and dancing and just like that he's past them all! And now. . .Lesson One's still in effect, having him leave would be like the fire all over again. . .but if he stayed. . . .
She could almost see it – a tiny flat of their own, just big enough for the two of them. A marriage at the registrar's because that was easier than raising the dead. Long walks around the city with no destination until they arrived, ridiculous conversations about how long one had to boil a Snark to render it edible or if the dead could really enjoy a good brandy or were just masters at faking it, warm nights spent wrapped in each others' arms. . . . It all gave her the exact same feeling she'd had the day she'd turned seven, spotted the White Rabbit, and chased him down the rabbit hole. And I denied myself this for so long. . .oh Victor – I love you, Alice thought, a giddy smile appearing on her face. I love you! Of course, now the question is, do you –
Of course you do! She burst out laughing at her own stupidity. That's even more obvious than the fact I love you! All those smiles, all those pictures, all those stolen moments at the piano – the piano! For the love of everything, I nearly figured this out in the Deluded Depths! If only I hadn't convinced myself that offer of lessons meant nothing – I could have had such a nicer month between the Depths and the East. . . . And for God's sake, both Nanny and Harry told me straight out that he was smitten and I ought to marry him! She jabbed herself in the chest. Blind, oblivious idiot, she scolded herself, although she was unable to wipe the smile from her face. How long were you going to keep this from me? I ought to box your ears.
Something about that thought – perhaps the knowledge that the Duchess had once done just that to the Queen – reminded Alice that she was still stuck in the lower levels of Heart Palace, and that if she ever wanted a chance to act on her feelings, she'd better get moving. She peeled herself off the ground, wrinkling her nose at the way her skirt tried to stick to her legs (ugh), then hopped from the lowered weight to the convenient row of invisible platforms floating just above. It's not going to be easy, you know, she told herself as she navigated the barely-there hints of purple back to the first metal platform. It would take a miracle to make Nell Van Dort tolerate you as a potential daughter-in-law. And it's probably better if you straighten things out with Radcliffe first, lest he accuse you of being too mentally unsound for matrimony. Plus all the typical domestic worries – where exactly are we going to live? What if Victor really can't find work? What happens if we have children – children, good God. There's a possibility I might have children that are directly related to me by blood. I can't tell if that's terrifying or exhilarating.
Exhilafying, perhaps, she answered herself as she dropped a fresh Clockwork Bomb and took off running. Or terrirating. But that's all for the future. The Infernal Train has to come first. Otherwise, how could I puzzle out the rest of it? She beamed and twirled as she reached the other half of the weights, then finally bounced onto the ledge that might just provide an exit from this wet pink catacomb. Right now – all I need to know is that Victor loves me, and I love him. When all else fails, I'll have that to fall back on. She slashed through some more withered pustules, grinning wickedly. And I won't let anyone, commoner, Queen, or doctor, get in the way of us being together. We both deserve some happiness.
I am really getting sick of having to run for my life!
Alice dashed forward again, letting her butterflies carry her out of the reach of the whirling scythe. I suppose I should be grateful that we aren't in one of the twistier parts of the maze, she thought as the Executioner let out another rough laugh at her attempts to flee. But I keep waiting for another Card Guard to claw its way from the Earth – this place is depressingly thick with them! And with Ruin. . .little surprised they weren't bubblegum-colored. The Queen must not have fully gotten to that set. She hugged the corner as she raced onward, leaves from overgrown branches smacking her in the face. Labyrinthine Revenge indeed. . .there must be some gap or – is that a clearing?
Alice darted out the hedge corridor, leaving the pondering Executioner to catch up at his own pace. Before her stood a rough circle of relative empty earth, covered with old grey paving stones and dotted here and there with a few decorative bits of dried-out foliage. Smack dab in the middle of it all was a rusted metal table, its dingy white paint flaking off onto the ground below. Perhaps it was a picnic area once upon a time. . . . Her stomach growled angrily. Yes I know you're almost to the point of turning me inside out just to get something inside yourself, but I can't – I – Oh thank you God!
Alice almost jumped for joy as she spotted what was on the table – strawberry-ringed vanilla-frosted salvation. She ran around to the other side of the table, pulling out her Vorpal Blade as she did. "EAT ME," the cake declared – Don't mind if I do! One snicker and one snack later, she had a slice ready for the consuming –
Just as the Executioner appeared again, scythe at the ready and eyeless sockets glaring. Uh-oh – no time to savor this one, Alice. Down the hatch it goes!
She almost choked from the force of shoving as much of the moist white cake in her mouth as she could, but she soldiered on, forcing herself to swallow each massive chunk as it went down. Come on, come on, she thought, licking icing off her lips as the loathsome monster neared –
An almost imperceptible tingle down her spine and up her limbs, and then, just as it had when she'd first tasted this bit of bakery magic long ago, everything around her began to shrink. The hedges went from high, practically impassible walls of greenery, to easily jumped low shrubs, to bits of lichen clinging to the earth. The table and cake receded from her view until they resembled poorly-kept dollhouse furniture. And the Executioner –
looked just about ready to shit himself. He gaped up at her, scythe falling with a dull thud from suddenly-nerveless fingers. Alice smirked, allowing herself one glorious moment to savor the look of terror on his stitched-together face. Then she lifted her foot and brought it down hard.
SPLAT! The once-enormous abomination, bane of her entire trip through this wretched castle, fell like an ant beneath her heel. Blood burst from his broken body as she ground it into the dirt, staining her boot. Alice wiped it off on a nearby spray of leaves, gave her foe a final little kick for good measure, then turned and examined her surroundings.
From the look of things, she'd reached the inner courtyard of the castle – no big surprise there. The remains of Labyrinthine Revenge formed a little circle around her, while directly in front stood a set of gazebos and the desiccated bodies of more unfortunate Chessmen. Walls hemmed her in on all four sides, but they didn't look particularly strong – easily kicked down or stepped over. Past them were more "gardens" and false chessboards, and further up. . . .
Was a heart-pupiled eye, glaring at her with intense malice from where it hung under two thick pink tentacles curled around a mighty spiked tower. So that's the Queen's inner sanctum. Appropriately disturbing, I must say.
Something whistled past her ear, and she turned to see what looked like a cannon ball smash into the ruins behind her. She squinted into the distance and just saw the ordnance from which it had sprung, mounted on another tower and preparing for a second blast. Easier to spot were the huge sores opening up all over the ground, spitting out wave after wave of Armored Card Guards. And that didn't take into account all the rubble to negotiate, and old flesh to clear. . . . For a normal-sized human, it would have been damn near impossible to push through to the Queen.
For a giant. . .Alice grinned again, eyes dark with malicious glee. "The Queen has loosed the dogs of war," she whispered to herself. "Time to raise some havoc."
And lo, into the heart of darkness we plunge once again. . . .
Alice slowed to a walk as she entered the Queen's throne room – the very center of Queensland. She couldn't help it – every last atom of her being wanted to be anywhere else but here. The air around her was hazy, and ripe with the smell of fresh, raw meat. Her boots squished with every step along the long catwalk, sending up tiny spurts of blood and pus. Far above her, the ceiling was a pulsating mass of tangled arteries and veins. And perched right in the middle of it, on an iron throne overgrown with lurid pink muscle and skin – Why couldn't you stay dead? Alice wondered, fighting the urge to throw up. Why couldn't you just go away? Why –
Why are you a little girl?
Alice paused as she came face to face with her old nemesis. Sure enough, in place of the blank-faced slithering puppet or the horrible conglomeration of bulging fat and tentacles she'd faced before, seated on the fearsome throne was – a child. A most unusual child, to be fair – the Queen's hands were just more tentacles, formed into five long grasping fingers, and beneath her skirt there was nothing but spreading meat, connecting her permanently to her own castle. But the face. . .the face was the one she'd seen in the mirror from her seventh birthday onward, just paler. Alice even remembered the haircut the Queen wore, from the summer she'd tried to style her hair like Lizzie's. Her mother had had to cut it short to fix the damage she'd done. She didn't like the bob now any more than she had then. "I was expecting someone else," she commented, frowning.
The Queen glowered at her. "You don't know your own mind!" she declared mockingly. Her voice was a strange thing – it couldn't seem to decide on whether it was that of a grown woman or of a small girl, and kept shifting up and down in its indecision.
Alice sighed, hands on her hips as if she was ready to scold Elsie for whacking someone with a doll. "It's nearly a complete stranger," she confessed. "I feel like I don't know anything about myself anymore."
The Queen's expression sharpened to a proper glare. "What you claim not to know is merely what you've denied," she informed Alice, eyes narrowed. "You've recaptured your vagrant memories – what are you doing with them?"
As usual, the Queen had no patience to actually wait for an answer. "Nothing! You just let them pass you by!"
"That's not true!"
"Isn't it?" The Queen jabbed at her with her scepter. "You once rejected my attempts to control our lives – forcefully! But now. . . ." Her face screwed up as if she was resisting tears. "Now you've allowed another to succeed in my role!"
Huh – Alice had once thought the monarch had no feelings beyond rage, but it was clear that Wonderland's former ruler was genuinely upset by this. Alice spared her no pity, however. It was all the Queen deserved after the horrors she'd visited upon this realm. "I won't miss your tentacles," she said coldly.
The Queen lifted her head and scowled. "You'd prefer the hot, stinking breath and unyielding attentions of a potent, unreasoning, unfeeling hell-raiser?" she snarled, slamming one oversized fist against the arm of her throne. "I don't think so!"
Alice stared, baffled. Unyielding attentions? Who on earth cares enough about me to want to –
No. She couldn't be. She wouldn't think – unless she was – bloody hell, was the bitch jealous? Anger flared up inside Alice, hot and hungry, and it took everything she had not to immediately summon her Blade and throw it straight into this rotten creature's face. "Don't you dare speak that way about Victor!" she yelled, hands bunching into fists. "Hell-raiser indeed – and you should know what one is!"
The Queen blinked and drew back. "Victor?" she said, her voice rising a few octaves. "Whatever makes you think I'm talking about Victor? His attentions are quite welcome, I would think." Her eyes hardened again, narrowing to slits as her words grew deep and cold. "Although why you allow yourself to ignore a perfectly good king while I'm forced to wither away here in darkness and loneliness is something I will never understand!"
Something clicked in Alice's mind then – something she hadn't considered in all the chaos of her previous visit. "Wait – where is the King of Hearts?" she asked, looking around the throne room, half-expecting him to emerge as some creature made of blood and shadow.
The Queen's face remained hard as marble – but there was a watery glimmer in her eyes. "Do you think you're the only one to have lost a loved one in that fire?"
. . .This explained so much. "I'm sorry," Alice said, and she was. Sorry that the first and best check on the Queen's behavior had perished, and (to her own surprise) sorry the Queen had had to go through such agony. "I genuinely didn't know."
The Queen regarded her a moment. "He died saving me," she suddenly said, voice so low Alice had to strain to hear. "The castle was burning, and he sacrificed himself to get me out in time. And you don't even acknowledge it when you meet someone who would do the same," she continued, voice rising now with anger as she waved her scepter around. "I told you before – self-pitying dreamers are not wanted here! You still live in the shadows – you still fear the truth!"
Alice decided to ignore this, concentrating instead on the bargaining chip she'd just received. "I can bring him back," she whispered. "You know I can. But I need–" She swallowed, hardly daring to believe that such words were about to pass her lips. "I need your help first. Caterpillar said you might be willing."
The Queen didn't reply – just looked at her with an expression of utmost loathing. Alice felt her patience wear thin. "If you don't, we're all doomed!"
The Queen shook her head. "Not doomed – forgotten," she corrected. "I may survive here, but you're finished!" She spread one expansive hand as tentacles began wriggling out of the darkness around them. "You see the pattern of destruction, I know you do. The Train is trying to destroy all evidence of your past, and especially–" her fist closed tight "–the fire!" She leaned forward, her gaze disturbingly penetrating. "Now – who would want that? Who benefits from your madness?"
"A flower's purpose is simple and immutable. Human purpose is fickle, because it is a slave to memory. Memories must be strictly managed, Alice. Unproductive ones must be eliminated."
Someone had just used the Ice Wand on her guts, she knew it. Alice clutched at her chest as it all came rushing back. Destroy all evidence of her past – "Flush the unpleasant from your mind as you would the disgusting and depraved. Forgetting is an art!"– especially the fire – "Memories, too, have a useful life. We should eliminate the ones that hurt!"– but he couldn't be – he was a doctor, he was supposed to help – "His hand was slimy, Alice! Like an eel from the Isis! And his name won't help – Bumby! If he ever does qualify, his bedside manner will require improvement!" A picture of him formed in her mind, the undergraduate she'd forgotten, hadn't wanted to remember – a fine suit, neatly slicked-back hair, glasses glittering over a pointed beard. . .just like the shadowy figure she'd seen creeping through her house when she'd passed through the last flaming door into the depths of her memory. . . . He'd stalked her sister, he'd taken the lamp, he'd set and escaped the blaze. And now. . .he'd told her to get rid of her friends, forget her childish dreams, to let Wonderland change even as she shrieked that the change was hurting her. . . . "The destruction of Wonderland – is the destruction of me?" she whispered, unable to keep her voice from shaking.
The Queen nodded. "Indeed! And vice-versa! He wants you gone, Alice – and you're helping him!"
For a moment, it felt like the shame might sent her straight off the catwalk. Then Alice pushed it back, stiffening her spine and gritting her teeth. No – she would not break. Would not submit under this onslaught of guilt. The Queen might have a point – a terrible, unassailable point – but that was no reason to collapse like a house of cards. "I set the Train in motion – I can derail it," she declared with all the confidence she could muster. She had to believe that – had to believe she could still fix things. Why bring her here otherwise? "This is good for me. I'm not insa–" Her throat choked on the word, and she couldn't blame it. Not when she was standing in a throne room whose very walls were organs and tissue, which she'd reached by sliding down an overlong tongue. "I didn't kill my family," she tried instead, putting every ounce of conviction she could behind it. Remember what Victor said, don't let this bitch win now– "I am fine. I'm innocent – I mean, n-not guilty–"
And then, suddenly, she was being mummified in wet, squelching pink. She slapped her hands over her face as terror surged through her. "What's happening? What are you doing?!"
"The Train must be stopped – but there's more to do," the Queen replied, lifting her off her feet. Alice tried to summon her weapons, but just like before, they wouldn't come. Not that she was able to move her arms to use them anyway. "Your view conceals a tragedy. The truth you claim to seek eludes you because you won't look at what's around you!"
And before Alice could react, before she could say a single word, she was being dragged forward, into a gaping maw of needle-sharp teeth – and then there was a squeezing, rough pain, and she could barely see –
"There is no method in this madness!" the Queen's voice echoed around her, and then – was that – Dr. Wilson? Speaking about how "madness is often a treatable disease – though perhaps not in this case. . . ." And those walls – oh no, no, no– "Authority must be obeyed – or it must be overthrown!"
Witless, back in her nurse's uniform, telling someone "cruel to be kind, that's my technique," and Alice couldn't obey or overthrow her because she was trapped, confined like an animal in smothering white canvas – then Bumby was there, swinging his key. . . . "The worst is over – and over – and over. Forget it, Alice, forget it!" Her mind screamed as she remembered his former threat: "If you're going to become a danger to yourself and others, maybe it would be best for you to be recommitted. . . ."
Blackness rolled in to claim her, but before it did, she saw the Queen loom over her one last time, eyes mysteriously sad. "And this time – you might not be the only one to pay the price for failure."