Chapter 21: Where Childhood Goes To Die
For most of the last year, and a good chunk of the years before that, Alice had been certain that Queensland was the worst circle of Hell one could find in all of Wonderland. The dusty brown paths of the Wonderland Woods, infested with Army Ants and Mechanical Ladybirds; the mirrored maze of Hatter's Domain, patrolled by Automatons and Nightmare Spiders; even the sulfur-tainted cliffs of the Land of Fire and Brimstone, brimming with Jabberspawn and Fire Snarks – all bowed down to the Queen's horrendous castle. Even now, Alice merely had to close her eyes to relive it all again. The splish, splish, splish of bodily fluids dripping from mysterious orifices and splashing into ornamental fountains. . .the brief, nerve-wracking glimpses of tentacles slithering through shadowed hallways and peeping through cracks in the walls. . .the overpowering stench of rotten meat assaulting her nose, permeating every square inch of the earth (if you could call it that). . .the pulse of blood-slick flesh beneath her abused fingers as she scaled bricks carved from muscle and fought Card Guard after Card Guard . . .it had been horror beyond anything she'd seen at that point. Even her visit to the dried-out husk that now sat in its place had been terrible in its reminders of the glory days. How could anything compare to what the Queen of Hearts had corrupted into an extension of her own body?
Well, now I have my answer, Alice thought, wrinkling her nose as she sliced up another hunk of roach-filled cake. Five minutes – perhaps not even that – and I must allow that this realm has the better of the Queen's in terms of sheer horror. I may be spared skinless flesh floors and pus-filled globules poking out everywhere, but tell me – is seeing a pair of ruby lips painted on a child's block, stacked atop another sporting a too-short petticoat, truly any better? She glanced down at the frosting-covered insects still squirming at her feet. Or if we must go by what nauseates me the most, these little monsters will do just fine. What a waste of good pastry!
Kicking the roaches away, she exited the wreck of a dollhouse, leaping into the steam handily spouting from a tiny chimney. It was sad, really – this was the sort of world she would have loved to explore as a child. What little girl wouldn't have adored a town made of toys, with petit fours and cupcakes liberally scattered around for the tasting? But no, instead she got piles of trash and furniture that looked like it could chase you down if you sat it on wrong. Who knew having stockinged feet beneath your end table could be so creepy? Maybe it's the little bows on the tops of the socks that remind one of grown-up garters. . .or maybe it's those cracks that look almost like fingers stroking the flesh. . . . Alice shuddered as she landed back at her starting point. No joy or fun to be found around here, not anymore. This is where childhood goes to die.
Well, if she wanted any hope at saving it, she had to get moving. She'd already been forced into one (admittedly profitable) detour – no time to waste on another. She started back across the ramshackle path. Navigating the first couple of quilted platforms was easy – it was the ones controlled by the pressure plate that made her stop and think. I've got to get the timing just right, otherwise I'll be running in circles again. The plate makes those rise, yes, and then we have to wait for that one over there that spins to come round just enough – now! She flung down the Clockwork Bomb and zipped forward, feet barely touching the green-stained wood before leaping into the steam, and then onto the raised floor. Go go go –
Luck was with her this time – she jumped off the splintered planks just as they descended, landing with a slight wobble before the front door of the next house. Whew! she thought, wiping sweat from her brow. All right, time to – hello, what's this?
A pink spiral mushroom had popped up to her left, swirls gently turning as if in greeting. "Haven't seen one of you in a bit," Alice informed it with a grin. "But you wouldn't have made yourself known if something curious wasn't to be found above. Let's see what it is."
One bounce later, she found herself on the second floor of the little broken home. There wasn't much to it – just a pair of oversized chairs (fortunately not boasting body parts for a change), a fogged-over standing mirror with SAVE US lettered on the glass (Alice winced as she remembered the unfortunate little ginger), and – a glittering syringe. "Oh come now – I've just gone through Rutledge," she complained at it, hands on hips. "Turn into something nicer, why don't you?"
The needle kept right on spinning. Alice sighed and reached out. "Fine, but if I see those horrible twins, I'm gone."
"I don't think Mr. Radcliffe is coming back."
"I don't either," Dr. Wilson said. Alice couldn't see him – her eyes wouldn't open – but he had a distinct presence beside her bed. Like Father Christmas, only much less pleasant. And much heavier. "It's been a fortnight since we've seen Ms. Sharpe as well. Though that's more understandable; the woman must be desperate for work about now. . . ."
"It doesn't cost that much to spend an hour or two at her bedside, does it?" Nurse Darling tched and sighed. "It's just not right," she declared, a motherly fuss in her voice. It made Alice want to cry as much as hide in the woman's arms. "I see this throughout the entire ward. A swarm of people coming to bring toys and food and books the first few weeks. . .then everyone just vanishes and leaves them to wonder if they were ever loved at all. And poor Alice didn't even get that much! Mr. Radcliffe always seemed more interested in the state of the bill than the patient. Doesn't she have grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or – anyone?"
"No, actually," Dr. Wilson replied, voice low. "Her grandparents have already passed on, and neither Dean Liddell nor his wife had siblings, according to her file. They and her older sister were her entire family."
"Oh dear. . . ." Friendly fingers stroked her hair. Alice wished she could thank her, but her mouth wasn't working today either. Too much screaming the day before, probably. "Alice, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"It certainly is a terrible case. I can't say I'm surprised that reporter from the Illustrated is continually skulking around, looking for updates. Front page gold, I'm sure." Dr. Wilson sighed. "And for the rest of your charges. . .well. . .as beloved toys are to children, children often are to grown-ups – objects of fancy and imagination and eventually discarded."
"Subtlety is not your strong point, is it, Wonderland?"
Alice rubbed her arms, glancing at herself in the looking glass as it came back into view. For a moment, she fancied she could see her child self in the clouded silver, staring back at her with wide, hopeful eyes. How long had it been since she'd worn that face? Well, obviously a little over a decade, but – when she'd first come across her reflection in one of the windows in the Skool, she'd been frozen with shock for a good minute. And it had taken her another one to really accept that the young woman (who looked distressingly like Lizzie) mimicking all her movements in the glass was her. The memory of herself in the mirrors at home – all pudgy cheeks and tousled curls – had felt more real to her than the half-starved straight-haired almost-a-lady she'd become. Even now, she had moments where she didn't feel any older than eight and a half.
And then there's times where I feel like a million years old, she thought, rubbing her eyes as her adult face reasserted itself. God. . .in a twisted way, I was rather lucky, wasn't I? I had no visitors in the asylum, but that was simply because there was no one to visit. The other children. . .didn't Witless once whisper something to another nurse about one of the boys being a nephew of someone in Parliament? Would have thought that would qualify him for a better asylum than Rutledge, but since when is our government capable of spending money where it's really needed. The important thing is, not all of the rest were orphans. They should have gotten more people in their rooms than just doctors and the occasional mortician. Shouldn't parental instinct trump the shame of having a child in bedlam? Oh, but we all know how important keeping up appearances is. . .no wonder so many spend their entire lives moldering in dank cells, or find ways to end their miserable existence early. And why so many pass through Bumby's cold and clammy hands, she added to herself with another shudder. Again I ask – why are parents like mine taken so early from their children, and others who don't give half a damn allowed to live well into old age? Inmates running the asylum indeed. . . .
Thoroughly depressed, she dropped through a gap in the floor into the main room of the house. The body parts were back in force here – a yellow couch with doll's arms grasping at the air stood pushed up against the wall to her left, while behind her, a pink straight-backed chair with an eye embedded in its back cushion peered suspiciously at the supposed savior. More eyes served as drawer-pulls on a green and blue desk to her right – Alice was half-tempted to jab them just to stop them staring. But if I did, no doubt I'd have to deal with the furniture screaming. . . . She settled for sinking her Blade into the insect-infested sponge cake in the corner, trading feelers for molars. At least these cakes are good for the teeth. So where do I go from – aha. . . .
A keyhole-shaped door – rather like the one she'd seen in the Duchess's kitchen – was on the wall just beside her. Alice stepped in front of it and shrank, waiting for the wood to disappear.
It didn't. Puzzled, Alice tried knocking on it. No response. Tugging on the handle did no good either. "Oh for – I need a key this time? You could have said," she muttered, popping back to her normal size. "All right, where is it. . . ."
She hunted around the room, half-hoping a little glass table with the necessary implement would magically appear as it had before. Wonderland was not so accommodating this time, however. And there was nothing hidden in the desk, or under the chair, or beneath the couch cushions. Frustrated, Alice turned her attention to the artwork. The button sewed into a frame yielded nothing even when she shook it. "For God's sake, what else is there?" she demanded, turning to face the keyhole wall again –
And was confronted with a delicate white butterfly, pierced cruelly through the middle with a nail, dried blood dripping over its wings and staining both its box and the paper just below it.
Alice stared at the creature, breath caught in her throat. It – it looked just like the little crystal gifts from the man she loved. . . . As if it served the same purpose, another memory popped into her mind, a companion to the first she'd found all the way back in the Vale of Tears:
"All these sketches – but no specimens! If you like butterflies so much, why don't you have any mounted?"
Victor wrinkled his nose, his expression suggesting the very idea made him vaguely ill. "It's because I like butterflies so much that I don't have any mounted. I've never been able to make a bug box in my life. I understand their value, of course, but – I simply cannot force myself to kill such sweet and beautiful creatures and then stick them behind glass on pins. All my work comes from live captures – and I'm sure to release them once I'm done." His hands fluttered around his face, like they intended to take off and fly themselves. "Sometimes I'll keep one for a day or two, feeding it on fresh flowers from the garden, or take a caterpillar and raise it in a jar, but – they're meant to be free. They're meant to be outside our control. You can only properly capture how – how spontaneous, how beautiful, how – how lively a butterfly – or anything, really – is if you draw them while they're still flitting around. I'd rather have a thousand perhaps-not-quite-accurate pictures to one carefully-preserved corpse."
"Hmph." Alice hit him with a playful smirk. "Some amateur lepidopterist you are."
Victor smirked right back. "There are reasons I've never pursued this as a career, Alice."
And then blood dripped out of his eyes and over his lips, and his cheeks became two trembling wings, and it all felt like an accusation. How dare you say you love him? the broken beauty seemed to snarl. You tease him all the time about the things he loves – even call him a liar when it comes to the most important event of his life. You drive him to distraction with worry – almost got him killed once – because you can't stay still for ten minutes while you're here. You left him with the man you know murdered your family and hates everything about him. Perhaps once you wake up from this particular dream, you'll find him pinned to the wall like this. Your precious butterfly boy, nothing more than a bug to be shoved in a box.
Alice shook her head violently, turning away. No. She couldn't believe that. Caterpillar had already assured her that Wonderland wouldn't keep her if Victor was in danger of losing his life. And besides, her butterfly boy was smart and kind and braver than he gave himself credit for. This was the man who'd gotten one over on Jack Splatter after all – and continually lived to tell the tale! He's always going on about how much he wants to leave Houndsditch – maybe he's taken advantage of my absence to finally escape the wretched place. Maybe he's run far, far away, and – and abandoned me to –
Oh, don't you start that either, she cut herself off, glaring at the eyes all around. Selfish brat – you've already ignored the fact that Bumby is doing something horrible to the children under his care because you didn't want to bother yourself with looking too closely into things! How dare you get upset that Victor might get what he wants for a change? Besides, you know him – even if he has left Houndsditch, he won't have given up his search. You really doubt the man who ran into a burning building for you? He loves you. Trust him.
Chastising done, Alice turned back to the box and touched the butterfly's wing. "I'll come back to you," she whispered, imagining pale skin, big brown eyes, and soft gray lips. "It may take me longer than I'd like, and I'll probably have to fight more demons than I want to, but I swear I'll come back to you. I won't leave you to suffer under that bastard forever. We'll defeat him together. You'll see."
creak. . . .
Alice looked down to see the keyhole door open wide. "Ah." She wasted no time in shrinking down and heading into the tunnel. Glad you're in favor of such sentiments – because as soon as I've cleaned up this corruption and taken care of Bumby, we're finding a way for him to visit, she thought. I've recently gotten proof magic is real, after all. It's not as impossible as I thought. I always wanted to bring Lizzie to this place – I won't let Victor miss out on his chance.
And besides, she added, thoughts drifting to the image of her Blade married with a long barbecue fork, if there's any enemies remaining after this adventure. . .it'd be nice not to have to face them alone.
And 'pop' goes the Ruin!
Alice smirked as the second Drifting Ruin burst, splattering drops of black ooze everywhere before fading into nothingness. Taking down these monstrosities was easy as pie these days – especially now that I've fully updated my arsenal, she thought, caressing the fanged spout of her snarling Teapot Cannon. Though I still wish I'd been able to find the Jabberwock's Eye Staff again – that would make short work of even a Colossal. Ah well – I'm still sending them all to meet their maker even with just four "toys" at my disposal. Just one tiny blow after another against the machinations of that Infernal Train and its engineer. . . .
She gathered up the spoils of war, boots clicking against the green chalkboard that made up this little valley in the center of the Dollhouse realm. Above her, more beaten and splintered houses loomed, showcasing more of the vast array of half-bakelite-bits chairs and couches she'd encountered. Still no actual dolls to populate them, she'd noticed – though she had spotted a curious lollipop creature hiding out to the left that wagged a wet tongue at her when it thought she wasn't looking. She didn't like to think what it might symbolize. Fortunately, it was keeping a respectful distance – helped by the fact that the land was crisscrossed by a series of dangerous-looking fences constructed of oversized sharpened pencils and tattered quills. Their lead and ink points divided the area up into uneven chunks, promising to make a bloody sketch out of any who dared brave them.
And I think I know who set them up, Alice thought, turning her gaze to the most notable feature of this spot – a wide castle constructed from letter and building blocks, chunks of dollhouse walls and doors, and whatever other scrap could be salvaged from the broken landscape. Not the sturdiest-looking of fortresses, but it seemed to hold up well enough compared to its neighbors. A cloth banner hanging over the front door declared the edifice to be FoRt REsisTENcE. Alice smiled as she noted every "E" had been lettered backwards. Children really are the same all over. She ventured up the front ramp. "Hello?" she called. "It's safe to come out!"
Silence greeted her at first – perhaps the residents were unsure of the truth of her statement. But then there was a soft giggle, and the green double doors creaked open, revealing a group of four unfortunate children. All of them wore the standard stained and tattered uniform of a Rutledge patient, and were mutilated in ways to match. The boy on the farthest left snickered madly at her as he played with the drill jabbed through his exposed brain – Alice had to repress yet another shudder at the memories that drew up. The girl in the back squinted at the world over a collar of heavy metal stretching across her nose, supported both by a shoulder harness and by bolts screwed directly into her forehead. On the right, a boy mumbled nonsense to himself as he twitched against the confines of a straitjacket, lips sewn up tight while the top of his shaven skull regularly popped open to release his thoughts into the sky. And at the front was a very familiar face of stitches and scars, eyes held wide and lips pulled up into a permanent, painful smile. "You're the one who visited me. Gave me back my talent with pencils for Victor's birthday."
The girl nodded, squeezing her bloodied teddy bear tighter against herself. "I never did properly thank you for that. You're looking – well," Alice lied through her teeth.
The girl – Alice guessed that she was the leader of this ragtag band, though whether that meant she was less or more insane was up for debate – giggled as her compatriots glanced around fuzzily. "No we're not," she said with the blunt honesty of childhood.
"Well, perhaps a bit unstable–" Alice tried, still trying to be diplomatic.
"The unstable are more than merely mad!" the Leader declared, before dropping her voice to a softer, more serious register. "They have other parts. The Dollmaker will deprive of them of what remains of their deranged souls!" She pulled at her overstretched lower lip before fixing one sewn-open eye on Alice. "They need care."
Dollmaker. It didn't take a genius to figure out who that truly was. At least she had a proper name for the monster now. Alice gazed at the four mournfully. How many children had there been before she'd allowed the Train to run wild? Hatter's asylum had been full to bursting – and Houndsditch much more crowded when she'd first arrived. "I know their pain," she whispered back. "I would assist. But – is sanity required for the job?"
Leader giggled again. "A limited quantity! You're not mad enough to be rejected."
"Not exactly comforting words," Alice replied, deciding to fight bluntness with bluntness.
"You didn't ask for any," Leader shot back. Her expression turned thoughtful – well, as much as it could get. "You're like them. Of them, in a way – but not them." She tugged at her hair as the drill handle whirred behind her. "I should say not 'us.' For I'm them, but you're on your way. The way is clearly marked."
"Forget it, Alice, forget it!" Alice shuddered and clasped her hands behind her. "I believe I know that way," she said slowly, rocking on her heels. "And I'd rather not travel further along it."
"You'll have to take a detour then," Leader said, her compatriots nodding along before returning to their twitching. "And you'd better hurry. You're not the only one on that way."
Alice's stomach dropped straight through the ground. Right – the children left in Bumby's care. . .Abigail and Reggie and Charlie and Elsie. . . . "How – how far ahead of me do you think they are?"
"Far enough," Leader replied. "Though not too far. They're like us, but – not us. Off the rails, for now."
"So there's still a chance?" If she could save even one of them. . . .
"If he don't turn them into them." A grunt from her head-popping companion. "The Dollmaker likes them. Likes him." Leader pressed a lipless kiss to her bear's head. "He'll take a shortcut if you're not careful."
The bloodied butterfly flew back into Alice's head, turning her veins to ice. Oh no – "Victor?" she asked, stepping closer. "But – he's not – he has parents, Bumby couldn't–"
A baby's squeal cut her sentence in twain. Leader's smile of course remained, but her eyes filled with sparks of fear. "It's here, you dimwits!" she cried, voice filled with anxious laughter as she turned and herded her friends back through the doors. "Get inside!"
"What's here?" Alice yelled, but the children had already disappeared behind the green wood. She spun around and darted down the ramp, wondering what on earth had scared them so. After the horrors already inflicted on them, could there be anything worse?
Another delighted giggle, then splinters and chalk dust flew past her face as something smashed its way through the line of pencils protecting the Fort's left side. Alice, choking, waved the cloud away. Another kind of Ruin? Surely Colossal are the limit of those horrors! But no – as her vision cleared, she could see that waddling toward her was instead –
A gigantic living doll. Superficially, she resembled the ones Alice had seen in toy shop windows: two floppy blonde pigtails bounced atop her porcelain head, while her body was clothed in a puffy sleeveless dress and thick lace-lined bloomers that seemed to conceal far more than her perfectly sexless body would demand. But this was a doll who had been played with far too roughly for her fragile constitution. One hand was missing, leaving a jagged gaping hole at the end of her hollow arm – the other clutched half a scissor, the blade gleaming in the thin sunlight. She also lacked eyes and nose, the empty sockets giving her face a skull-like quality. Mysterious stains dripped down her cheeks in a grotesque parody of tears, and her perfect little mouth held back a voice that was nothing but mindless shrieks. It all made Alice's stomach turn. It was only right that a Dollmaker should make Doll Girls, she supposed – but it was the enthusiasm with which the Girl embraced her defilement, laughing as she bounced along on cracked and naked feet, that really broke her heart. She could have been such a lovely toy. . .but instead she's been bent and broken to the twisted whim of a man without a soul, she thought. And I – I have to fight her to make my way through this ugly world. God forgive me.
The Doll Girl squawked a greeting and swung her scissor half at Alice's neck, a hint of flame licking the blade as it flew through the air. Alice butterflied out of the way, then readied her Hobby Horse (now a glowing white unicorn with the snarl of a lion). "I'm sorry," she whispered as she swung it into the Doll Girl's middle, causing the creature to whimper in confused pain and draw her arms before her protectively. "I know you think this is all just play. I wish I could fix you, believe me. But – you're too far gone, and the others need me more." She winced as the Girl stomped her feet, sending a shockwave up her spine. "So if it's you or me in this fight. . . ." She bit her lip, then hardened both her gaze and her heart. "Then it has to be me."
"I never expected to be grateful to see you floating bastards. But then again, before I didn't know Doll Girls existed. At least you – ow!"
Alice jerked backward as shards of crystallized Ruin sliced her arm before landing with a spiky splat on the wall behind her. "Never mind," she growled, yanking out the Teapot Cannon and proceeding with the usual round of explosions. "I don't know why I even bothered trying to make conversation. So desperate for company I'm talking to Ruins. . .oh Alice, you really are in a bad way." She grimaced, bile burning her throat. "If having to walk through a doll's – nether regions didn't prove that already."
Fortunately, there were no further examples of that disgustingness hanging around – right now the Dollhouse seemed content with candle holders made of babies' heads and suicidal wooden soldiers. Not much better, but she'd take what she could get. The faster we hop along Frog's Way, the faster we get to where we're going, she told herself. I doubt I actually want to get there, but I have to catch up with Bumby. Funny I haven't heard the Infernal Train rumbling through in a while. . .then again, it hardly has any work to do here. She sighed and pushed her hair out of her face, looking around what remained of a pink and tan living room. All right, what do I need to do to force the path to reveal itself?
Two options presented themselves to her. On her right, a tiny house spurted steam, leading her up to the second floor of this dissected doll's dwelling. On her left, a keyhole blocked by a purple door promised her further egress into the ground floor of the home. "May as well try being short-sighted first," she said, hiccuping herself small. "Curiosity often leads to trouble, but I'd rather find it before it finds me."
Down a flower-patterned china tunnel (Shades of the Mysterious East. . .oh, I hope some of the poor Ants survived the coming of the Train) was a short hall, containing a crooked bookcase and a broken clock sporting long legs. Alice ignored them in favor of the doorway at the end, blocked by more befouled cake. A few sweeps of the Vorpal Blade cleared it away, leading her to what seemed to be a private dining nook, containing a pair of cycloptic chairs, a table piled high with ice creams and puddings and spider legs and roach parts, a few spare petit fours in the corner –
and her rabbit.
For a moment, Alice forgot how to breathe. It just – it didn't seem possible. Everyone in the world seemed united in keeping her separated from her precious Mr. Bunny. Dr. Wilson, snatching it away in the asylum just to see how loudly she'd scream. . .the Munroes, pouring gunk over it or threatening to rip it to ribbons every time she refused to eat. . .Nurse Witless, pulling it out of her arms and keeping it hostage until she used the bedpan. . .Nurse Darling, delivering it to Radcliffe instead of directly to her after her release. . .Mr. Radcliffe himself, locking it away in his house and complaining every time she asked for it. . .even her own brain had betrayed her once, forcing her to leave it behind on what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Wonderland just presenting it to her was utterly out of the question.
And yet, there he was, clean and neat like in the good old days, button eyes gleaming and ears crisp white. Though he was missing his familiar dark waistcoat, instead attired in the White Rabbit's favorite garb – a black top hat and long red tailcoat. Well, such dress-up was appropriate; he'd inspired the Rabbit's first appearance, after all. He even had Rabbit's glittering golden watch!
The chain of which was wrapped tight around his neck as he dangled helplessly from the ceiling. "Time to forget, Alice. . . ."
Fury propelled her higher than she'd thought possible, but despite three tries and a bad landing that left her right boot covered in whipped cream, she was unable to free her beloved toy. The chain simply held him too strongly, and she didn't have the time to unlink it before she started falling back to the earth. And tugging him down was a sure invitation to decapitation. He's already lost his head once – I will not inflict that on him again. Sulking, she kicked the white fluff off her foot. There must be a way of getting him down. It's not beyond Wonderland to taunt me, of course, but – I know I can't drag him around with me, much as I'd like, but just one hug –
Alice snarled at the glittering glasses revolving beside a pair of golden teeth. "We know you're the one who strung him up – you needn't make it so obvious!" she snapped. "Really, though, you're quite late – my first memory upon arriving should have been one of yours. You've already spread your stink quite heavily all over this world." She sighed and snatched the crystal up. "Let's get this over with."
"The common mind has failed the children of our era. This sentiment of letting young people just run around and do as they will has led to unruly, ungovernable, and most of all unproductive adults. Most of the ills of our modern era can be traced to this desire to allow children all sorts of irresponsible liberty."
"What is he going on about?"
Alice glanced up from her broom. "Oh, he's been asked to give a speech at some dinner with his colleagues. He's practicing – as if he needs it, the windbag."
Victor snorted. "He's about as reticent as my mother on a good day," he agreed, before frowning. "Rather – odd speech, though. Does he really think forcing children into lessons and chores all day is better than letting them play a bit? It's not like we don't have toys and games for the children here."
"He probably fears what public opinion would say about him if he didn't allow them some leisure," Alice replied. "I've seen him try playing with the children once or twice – he's such a stickler for rules the games don't even get off the ground. I get the feeling he was the type who got up everyone's noses when he was little. Won every game of chess but never pretended the pieces were alive just for the fun of it."
"You and he would have had some interesting matches, I'm sure," Victor grinned. "Sending the White Knight and all the pawns after him while he protested that they were nothing but carved ivory and could you stop throwing them please?"
Alice snickered. "You're sure we never met as children? You seem to know my younger self better than you ought."
"Excuse me, could you please keep it down out here?"
Alice and Victor looked up to see Dr. Bumby glaring around his door. "This is an important speech and I'd like to be sure I have it right."
"Sorry, Doctor," Alice said carelessly. "We'll go sweep somewhere else. Come on, Victor."
"Thank you." The door shut again, and Alice heard the psychiatrist resume as she led her friend down the other end of the hall. "Every child has a purpose! It is the beholden duty of knowing adults to fit every young person to her calling."
And right on cue, Alice heard the squeal of a Doll Girl.
She whirled around, Vorpal Blade flashing into her hand as she left the memory – but no, nothing had popped up behind her while she was lost in thought. Just her imagination, putting a fresh voice to Bumby's words. Alice idly stroked the edge of the Blade, watching some unnameable thing skitter through a pile of tarts on the table. Bumby had spouted that rhetoric a thousand times, a thousand different ways – purpose, purpose, purpose. Everyone had one, and it was their duty to find and serve it, no matter what it might be. And it was his duty to guide them to it. Before, she'd simply thought him suffering a case of overblown ego – patting himself on the back as if he were solely responsible any time a former patient made good. Now. . .what was the purpose of a Doll Girl? Or of a Ruin of any stripe? Poor Caroline, thrown to the lowest of the low in the Limehouse market – what had her purpose been?
What was hers going to be?
Alice shuddered, then glared at the watch chain. Wretched thing, keeping her from comfort. . .she raised the Vorpal Blade to shoulder height and aimed. She hadn't done this since her defeat of the Queen, but it wasn't like it was even that far –
whick whick whick – whuck! With a sharp snap, Mr. Bunny dropped from the ceiling, hitting the side of the table before landing sprawled on the floor. Alice scooped him up in an instant, pressing him tight against her chest, relishing the feel of plush fur and squishy cotton –
And then he grew hard and brittle in her hands, crunching and crisping, and between her fingers trickled a pile of ash.
For half a minute, Alice stared at it, tears flooding her eyes. Then she wiped her vision clear and stalked out of the room. Fine then. She might not have her bunny, but she had her mission, and she was going to damn well see it through. You may think you have all your tracks covered, but I'll root them out, she promised as she proceeded back up the tunnel. If I can't run from my guilt, neither can you! I'll find proof of where you send the children, and what you did to my family that night. It's somewhere, I know it – I can feel it in my bones. And when I do. . . .
Well. You'll be wishing you could face the Jabberwock instead.
"Owwww. . . ."
"Please be still, Alice," Lorina said, winding the last layer of gauze over her daughter's forearm. "I'm almost done."
"It hurts," Alice complained, pushing her pot "helmet" out of her eyes.
"I know it does, my dear. But I'm afraid it's your own fault," Lorina declared, tying the bandage before hitting her younger daughter with a sharp look. "What were you thinking, swinging that blade around like a madwoman?"
"I was fighting the Jabberwock!" Alice explained, flinging her arms wide before a stinging pain reminded her she had to be gentle with the left one.
"The what now?"
"The Jabberwock! You know – ''Twas Brillig and the slithy toves–'"
"Oh, that. . .but isn't that poem about someone killing the wretched beast? At least, that's how I understood it when you first recited it for us."
"He didn't stay dead enough," Alice replied, scowling as her pot fell into her eyes again. "The Queen of Hearts probably ordered he be brought back to protect her roses or some nonsense. But I had to cut his head off before he burned down the Wonderland Woods!"
"Yes, and you nearly took your arm off with it!" Lorina shook her head, sighing deeply."Alice, your father and I understand how important Wonderland is to you, but – you're not a cat, my dear. One life is your allotment!" She squeezed her hands together, expression a curious mix of fond exasperation and deep worry. "Please be more careful with the carving knife!"
"Oh, Mother – I'm sorry, but I can't afford to."
Alice smiled sadly as Lorina transformed back into another doll-armed couch (this place desperately needed new furniture – actually, what it really needed was to be leveled to the damn ground). "How shocked would you be to see me with my Vorpal Blade?" she continued, flicking the weapon into her hand, then away again. "Slicing and dicing through endless waves of enemies, in complete contradiction to every lesson on etiquette and proper lady-like behavior you ever taught. . .but I'm sure you'd understand it's a matter of life and death." She stretched out her left arm and examined it. "Besides, you'd have to be at least a little proud of me – no cuts at all! At least, none self-inflicted. Anymore."
The doll's head tucked into the box shelves against the back wall eyed her, as if doubting the truth of that statement. "Fighting off a corruption in my mind doesn't count!" she snapped, then turned away and leapt out of the high parlor, back toward the quilted arena on stilts where she'd just delivered another crushing defeat to more of those bastard Ruins and another scissor-wielding Doll Girl. "Ugh, can't even try for a bit of levity. . . ."
She landed with an "oof" on the patchwork fabric, then turned in a slow circle, shrinking twice as she did. No – no almost-invisible purple platforms hanging in midair, no snuffling pig snouts tucked into random corners, no rancid cakes or muffins stacked next to the block towers dotting the place. She'd officially collected everything there was to collect. Time to investigate the turquoise and pink dollhouse, then, Alice decided, turning her steps to the right. Considering it popped open once I finished off that Menacing Ruin, it must have something important in it. She bounced off the edge of the platform, trying to ignore the way the nearest steam-venting house seemed to be trying to peer down her dress (why oh why did everything in this world either have too many eyes or too few?), twirled to gain a little extra height, then hit the stairs and started up.
The first set of steps terminated in a landing of interlocked puzzle pieces painted a uniform blue, with a gap between it and the set that actually led to the second story – likely to be filled once the wall closed up again. For now, though, Alice could clearly see the floor below, in all its rather unassuming glory. More piled blocks sporting pictures of ears and eyes (this part of Wonderland wouldn't recognize 'subtle' if it painted itself purple and danced naked on a harpsichord), a trio of worm-riddled cakes, a suspicious patch of grass in the corner that would no doubt spring forth a bouncy mushroom once she completed one of Wonderland's arbitrary tasks –
And a crystal butterfly, revolving quietly near one of the windows. "Victor!" Alice immediately abandoned her climb in favor of dropping to the worn boards and seizing the creature in both hands. She might have briefly considered leaving such memories behind in favor of speed in Queensland, but now she knew better than to neglect a single one. Besides, friendly voices here were not a luxury – they were a necessity.
"You can't save the world," Alice told him, not without sympathy. "No matter how rich you are. And even if you were to give all these people a good home and a hot meal every day, some of them would still be monsters and maniacs. You've said yourself some of the nastiest people you've ever known were also some of the richest." Victor nodded reluctantly. "People like you are much fewer than they ought to be, Victor. I'd love to be able to change the world too – to make it so no one has to suffer again. But I've seen enough of reality – and fantasy, honestly–" she added, thinking of the wreck Wonderland had become "– to know that there's always going to be suffering. Always going to be villains lurking the streets. All you can do is look out for yourself, and perhaps try and make a little difference here and there." Knowing what would cheer him up, she added, "You managed to send someone to Heaven, or whatever passes for it. That has to count for something, right?"
Sure enough, Victor smiled. "I would hope so." Then his anxious expression returned as he fiddled some more with his fingers. "Still, speaking about how people treat others. . .maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I don't exactly approve of the way Dr. Bumby handles the children. Those paper placards are still a complete mystery to me."
"He's said that it's for identification purposes – that when he has to discuss the child with a colleague, he can give them a modicum of privacy," Alice said. "What's mysterious about that?"
"Fair enough, but. . .why make them wear numbers? That just seems so – dehumanizing. Surely some sort of fake name would be better? Or even letters?" Victor frowned, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Unless it has something to do with their ages. . .of course, when I ask most of them what theirs is, they don't seem to recall."
Well. It seemed Wonderland was determined to hit her where it hurt when it came to how blind she'd been during her months at Houndsditch. Not that she didn't deserve it, of course. . .had she really reassured Victor when he'd brought that up? Told him that the numbers weren't important? That some of the strange things Bumby said or did didn't actually matter in the long run? That the important thing was that he was helping the children to forget their painful pasts and find new homes? Guilt gurgled up Alice's throat like burning bile. You saw it before I did, she thought, closing her eyes against the shame. Or, at least, you were willing to acknowledge it before I did. And what was my response? To do exactly what Bumby's been doing to me all along and turn you away from the truth! How could I have been such a fool?
By being too scared of what might happen if she wasn't, that was how. Much as she liked to think of her release from Rutledge as a triumphant march back into regular life, that hadn't truly been the case. She had conquered the worst of her insanity, yes, but even as she'd strode proudly through those creaky gates, her grip on reality had been distressingly shaky. Even gaining Victor as a friend hadn't done as much as either of them would have liked to bolster it up. As ably demonstrated by the fact that I'm here at all, she thought, opening her eyes and looking around with a grimace. Oh, she'd known Dr. Bumby was a bit creepy, but some of his more disturbing behaviors. . .was there anything more awful than not being able to trust the evidence of your senses? Of worrying that if you spoke up at the wrong moment, or accused him of something no one but you had seen, you'd be thrown back into the clutches of David, Lum, and Cratchet? Better to wear blinders than ever risk that. Plus, after realizing Dr. Wilson genuinely had not meant her harm despite some of his more dubious therapies, she'd met with embarrassment any suspicions about Dr. Bumby. Not trusting doctors had seemed like a flaw, something to be conquered if she ever wanted to get better. She hadn't wanted to deal with the possibility that Bumby wasn't what he said he was – hadn't been able to deal with it. And she'd wanted to trust him, wanted to forget, wanted to escape the horrors of her past. . . .
But you can't do that, can you? she thought, running her fingers through her hair. The faster you try to run away from your history, the faster it catches up with you. And now I'm practically drowning in it, no good to anyone. Even myself. She bit her lip, rocking back and forth on her heels. I could have done so much more, so much good. If I hadn't kept obsessing over my own pain and occasionally looked at someone else's. . .if I'd taken a moment to listen, really listen to Victor and his concerns. . .if I'd worked harder to remember, rather than forget. . . . "It's well know that he who eats with the devil must have a very long spoon." Nanny, dear, clearly mine wasn't long enough. Oh, if only I could go back and smack some sense into my younger self!
But the past was the past, and she knew of no way to change it. Alice turned her gaze to the ceiling far above, the rafters rotted enough to expose a glimpse of the sky. No time to waste on "what ifs" now – Wonderland was in its gravest peril yet. And who knew how long it would take her to navigate the whole of the Dollhouse. Every step forward seemed to require at least two or three back. . .how was one supposed to progress like this? I have to get through – I have to get back to the Home! I have to make sure Reggie and Abigail and Elsie and Charlie and – and Victor. . . .
God, she missed him. She missed the feel of his fingers twined with hers, the sparkle in those deep brown eyes when he laughed, the warm reassuring beat of his heart in her ear. He'd become an essential part of her well-being, and now. . . . "He'll take a shortcut if you're not careful" – funny how such a simple sentence could give her such a bad case of the chills. It wasn't just Bumby's attitudes toward the children that she'd dismissed as unimportant, after all. "The proofs are legion! Every creature has a purpose," echoed in her memory as the psychiatrist's glasses glinted in her peripheral vision. "It is my sacred duty to fit every young person to a calling, be it for ornament or use." Was Victor intended as an ornament – or was Bumby going to use him? Alice shuddered. For all that Wonderland was nearly getting her killed every so often in reality, it had at least gotten her away from the bastard, minimizing the damage he was doing to her brain. Was he taking out his frustrated efforts on her beloved in her absence? Were her fears about finding Victor pinned to the wall like that poor bleeding butterfly more real that not?
Calm down, she told herself, taking a deep breath. You'll be of no help to anyone if you're a nervous wreck. Victor's smart. He knows how to handle himself. He's got to be all right. She attacked the cakes with her Vorpal Blade, hacking them into tiny bits to relieve her feelings. Besides, he has all the advantages I don't – parents, money, and a past he doesn't want to forget. What could Bumby do to him?