Chapter 23: Childhood Is Definitely Dead Now
Eugh. . .on the one hand, part of me's glad this horrible place has finally stopped pretending to be cheerful. On the other hand, the other part hates it a little more for giving up the facade.
The eye on the shelf before her blinked, floating aimlessly in its glass prison. Nearby, a brain in a marble pulsed in a steady one, two, one-two-three pattern, and something which Alice couldn't identify but was willing to call a spleen bobbed in a sea of preserving fluid. She grimaced and turned away. I expected a splash of color or two, at the very least, she thought, gazing at the worn, unpainted squares of wood surrounding her, studded all along their edges with rusty nails, no two pieces quite matching. Even after having to slide down a chute of cracked glass, mindful every moment that if any piece were missing, I'd find myself with a dozen sharp screws puncturing my bustle. This all looks so – unfinished. If not for the architect's taste in artwork, I'd think I'd fallen into an entirely new part of Wonderland under construction. She shuddered. At least there's no dolls to be seen right now. . .I'm never going to be comfortable in a toy shop again.
It was truly amazing just how many ways innocent playthings could be perverted, she'd discovered. The Doll Girls and Bitch Babies (Mother would scold her terribly, but anything that spat toxic green slime at you was definitely a bitch) from the upper levels were just the tip of the iceberg. Down here, you could turn a corner and be confronted with a naked porcelain body strung upside-down with razor wire, legs pulled wide and face smashed to reveal the emptiness within. Or peer through a scratched pane of glass upon a candle whose wax drowned a set of triplet dolls, their pained faces screaming for help through the gooey white. Or be forced to open a doorway via pulling a lever set into a living brain, while the busted skull of its owner watched from a bath of bubbling formaldehyde, spine dangling from the severed neck. And there were stranger creatures too – the heads of birds jabbed onto the skeletal feet of men, beetles crafted from old ribcages, and lungs which had sprouted kraken tentacles. Nothing that had attacked her yet, but she wasn't about to drop her guard anytime soon. Even reducing herself to the size of a mouse provided no relief – in those spaces the Dollmaker had left blank, purple crayon sketched images of a taloned hand on marionette strings, the blank eyeless visages of the Doll Girls, and of course the Infernal Train. I'd have nightmares if I weren't already living one. Come on, Alice, just keep moving forward. . . .
She shattered a cracked porcelain head for its teeth, took out the trio of Drifting Ruin that came to harry her (For all his sick creativity when it comes to statuary, he doesn't have much imagination for his troops. Then again, do I want more variations of these loathsome things to fight?), then considered her next move. Directly in front was the next ramshackle construction of the cellars, but another stygian abyss yawned wide before her, keeping her from reaching the higher platforms with just a simple jump. However, all was far from lost – as usual for these situations, two weights of steel and glass were suspended within the gloom, just waiting to be set in the right position. Today, these were joined by a couple of panels supported by thick chains, forming a "staircase" toward the rightmost weight, and a pair of steam vents – fashioned from rabbit skulls and pipes designed to look like top hats. Alice glared at them. "Ha ha – when we meet at last, you're losing a tooth just for that," she growled. "Hmph. . .all right, so how do we do this. . . ."
A faint glitter on the left caught her eye, distracting her from the problem. Alice squinted into the dark to see another rough hunk of unfinished floor hanging from the ceiling, a crystal something revolving on it. A quick jump revealed it was a house. "What on earth is one of you doing down here? Unless – unless you're the one that finally provides me the proof I need to send this bastard to gaol for the rest of his unnatural life!"
Hope filled her tired blood with new vigor. She darted right, tossed a bomb, then shot left, hopping lightly from the raised weight to the heavy block that served as floor for the next bit. She took a moment to orient herself (and ah, yes, if she dropped the Clockwork Bomb over the side once she was done here, raising the other weight. . .not such a puzzle after all), then dashed over to the tiny building, reaching it with an eager twirl. Crossing her fingers, Alice hugged it to her chest.
"I wish I could go to tea with the grown-ups like you, Lizzie."
"Oh no you don't," Lizzie replied, sweeping her brush through Alice's hair. "It's awful. You'd be bored stiff after five minutes."
"But tea parties are fun!" Alice protested. "I always have a good time when I visit Hare and Hatter, even if they don't have any idea what proper conversation is."
"Neither do the people I take tea with, and they don't have the excuse of being mad as – well, hatters and hares," Lizzie said, unable to help a smile. "But really, Alice – your friends in Wonderland don't make you dress in your Sunday best, or force you to sit straight and stiff as a board, or keep you from eating and drinking as much as you'd like. And you actually want to see them. I'd be happier if all our 'guests' found themselves at the bottom of a hole."
"But – they seem so important!" Alice said, squinching up her nose in pain as Lizzie encountered a tangle.
"Important? Alice, which teas have you been watching? The ones I've attended have been full of silly young men trying to make nice with their Dean so they don't get expelled." Lizzie rolled her eyes. "All those undergraduates waiting for a word from Papa. 'Might I hold the tea cozy, Sir?' 'Might I pour, Sir?' Bunch of toadies. It's enough to make you sick to your stomach." She yanked the brush through the knot of hair, making Alice wince. "Sorry. . .today was one of the worst. We had a new fellow – some idiot doing his doctorate in psychology – and he just would not stop staring at me! I was half-convinced he was simple." She sighed. "Papa seemed awfully pleased by it, though. I hope he doesn't have some grand scheme of trying to pair me off with the man."
"Papa's not like that, Lizzie," Alice echoed her younger self as the memory dissolved around her. "And thank God! Marriage to Bumby. . . ." Oh, the very idea of it turned her stomach worse than the sight of someone's grey matter trapped in a marble. Alice tried to keep from picturing it, but her treacherous imagination raced ahead of her. Lizzie in the bridal white, dragged to the altar, stumbling over her vows to promise her life to a man she loathed. . .washing windows and dusting books, constantly waiting for her husband to sneak up behind her. . .handing him his plate at dinner and shivering as his clammy fingers stroked her skin. . .and then, in the bedroom, shining glass leaning over her as he slowly lifted the hem of her nightgown. . . . Alice pressed her hand against her mouth to keep in the sick. Poor Lizzie. It would have been a fate worse than death.
On the other hand – she would have had the chance to run away too, some contrary voice inside her pointed out. Flee one night into the wild blue yonder, as the Americans put it. You might not have ever seen her again, but at least you would have had the pleasure of knowing she'd gotten out of that hell – and maybe even found someone else whom she truly loved. What do you have now besides the assurance that she woke up Downstairs? You don't know that she's making the best of a life cut short. It could be that she's still hiding in her room, slowly rotting away as she wonders what she did to deserve such a fate.
It was not fair. It was simply not fair. Her sister, a wonderful person – or, at least, pleasant enough if you weren't an Oxford undergraduate – had been forced into the Land of the Dead in the prime of her life, to be chewed by maggots and collapse slowly into dust, all hope of a future lost. And Bumby – Bumby, with his arrogant smirks and cold hands and inability to accept the word "no" – had not only snuffed out that precious life, he'd been rewarded with a doctorate and his own practice! A practice which he now used to ruin the lives of others! Alice's fists clenched as she thought of how many children she'd seen pass through the Home during her brief year there – children who came begging for help and sanctuary, and left as hollow shells of themselves. Even the long-term residents, the stubborn, hard-to-cure cases like herself, were slowly having their identities, their very souls, chipped away. Charlie was getting extra sessions for his "trauma," Reggie was starting to play less and stare emptily at the wall more, and Abigail was so often dragged along on those "therapeutic trips. . . ." She stamped her foot to relieve her feelings. How could Bumby get away with it? How could anyone not see just what a wretched specimen of humanity he was?!
"Really. No one thought that maybe, just maybe, this fellow who'd shown up out of nowhere, who was such a master of smarm, was up to no good."
Victor shrugged. "We brushed it off as 'he's an aristocrat,' Alice. He fit in perfectly with the Everglots. I never thought he was nice, but I also never would have guessed he was evil."
Ah yes – because the instant you had any sort of power, or pretended that you did, people became utterly blind to your faults. Walk and talk and smile like one of the old money, and no one would ever suspect you of being the bane of young brides laden with heavy dowries. Con your way into a degree and act like you were doing the poor a favor even as children vanished into the night, and everyone would laugh at your "eccentricities" and pour money into your coffers. She'd fallen victim to it too, hadn't she? Always wanting to believe the best of him just because he was a doctor?
Well, the scales have fallen from my eyes, Bumby, she thought, leaping back over to the splintered block. And I'll never be so dim as to let them grow back. Perhaps you covered your tracks well with my family, but I know you've got something somewhere that proves your guilt. I'll find out just where those children go once you're done with them. Just what lovely specimens of humanity takes them off your hands. And when I do. . . .
But that was for the future – when she finally clawed her way out of this dark dream. She leaned over the edge of the wood and carefully tossed a Clockwork Bomb onto the weight below. Time to see what fresh horrors wait on ahead. Hopefully they'll all be things I can wipe from existence.
Down we go and – wait. Is this – am I seriously back at Fort Resistence?!
The click of green chalkboard beneath her heels assured her that she was. Alice scowled as she glared around the center of the Dollhouse. It looked exactly the same as it had when she'd first visited – they'd even repaired the fence in front of Frog's Way. All that time running for my life, solving puzzle after senseless puzzle, and developing a distaste for dolls so deep I'll never be able to touch one again – and I end up right back where I started?! What the hell was the point of–
No. Oh please no. . . .
Alice raced forward, puffs of purple chalk trailing in her wake. Things were not the same as they'd been before. The doors of Fort Resistence were gone, smashed to splinters by some unknown force. The inside was dark, but Alice could make out a maze of blocks crisscrossing the sanctum – most sporting bright red stains, and one with a drill jabbed into its top right corner. Beyond that, though, there was no sign of the residents–
Save one, lying at the entrance in a pool of blood, her eyes torn from her skull. "Leader!"
To Alice's shock, the girl lifted her head. Despite everything, the brave little creature was clinging to a thread of life. She looked up at Alice with dark, empty sockets, body trembling with the effort. "They came," she whispered, her voice thin and reedy. "Dollgirls and Bitch Babies and all the Ruins. . .came for our spare parts. . .Thinker and Caged and Drillhead all gone. . . ."
Alice knelt by the little girl's side, tears welling up in her eyes (and it felt oddly unfair to be able to cry when this broken child would never get the chance again). "I'll get them back," she promised, running her fingers through Leader's hair, heedless of the red sticking to her flesh. As if blood held any horror when compared to all this. "I'll bring them back and I'll make the Dollmaker pay."
"Too late for them," Leader replied, and hacked. Alice could practically see the girl's soul flitting away from its shell. "Won't be nothing left when you get there."
"I'll make him pay regardless. No one else will suffer like you have."
The girl nodded, then grabbed Alice's hand in one convulsive movement. The young woman started as a sharp tingle like a static shock ran up her arm. "What–"
Leader's tattered lips curled in a last smile. "Fair's fair," she breathed. "You came and played. . . ."
And with that, she was gone, head falling to the boards with a very final thump. Alice stared at her hand as the little corpse turned blue. "You want it for good, come visit us at our Fort" – that's what Leader had said when Alice had summoned her to beg for her art skills back for Victor's birthday. And when she'd gone ahead and returned them for the night, the tiny electric snap Alice had felt back then – well, it was identical to the one she'd felt just now. Leader had made good on her promise.
Which means it's time for me to make good on mine, Alice thought, lips set in a determined line as she rose to her feet. So I've just traversed Frog's Way – what other paths lead from this place?
A soft shuft of pencils being withdrawn into the earth gave her a clue. She walked down the crimson-tainted ramp and turned left. A fresh gap in the fence there greeted her, revealing a path winding up a slight hill. A sign painted on a pointing doll's arm declared it to be "Snail's Trail." And just like its companion on the other side of the Fort, the entrance to said Trail led right through a doll's most private parts. This one was lying on its belly, bottom thrust up in apparent invitation, face staring back at her with black sockets like a grotesque parody of Leader's mutilated face. Alice grimaced, shaking her head. The Dollmaker certainly had a talent for turning her stomach.
But if he thought such crude imagery would turn her from her course, he'd sorely underestimated her. She jogged forward, eyes hard and sharp as steel. She was a hound on the hunt, and she was not going to rest until she had her fox. No matter how disgusting or dangerous the path, she would follow it to the end –
Or die trying.
For most of her trip through Wonderland, Alice's favorite thought had been that her mind was trying to kill her. After all, she had it on good authority that most people weren't forced into continual battles with mental monsters while wandering the streets in a dangerously deluded daze. Why would that be her experience if her brain didn't want her six feet under? Now, though, with her experiences in traversing the Dollhouse, she was pretty sure she'd had it back to front: something – or someone – was trying to kill her mind.
And he's getting pretty desperate about it too, she thought, deflecting another fiery projectile with the help of her parasol. The Menacing Ruin shrieked in rage and tried to charge her, only to find itself helpless before a simple gap in the floor. Alice smirked and took the opportunity to lace its body with peppercorns. I mean, two Menacing Ruins and a Doll Girl? Almost right on the heels of a fight with a Colossal Ruin? Reeks of overkill. Surely just the Girl herself would have sufficed.
The Menacing Ruin screamed as its final face shattered, melting into a puddle of harmless goop. Then again, considering I just slaughtered the lot of them. . .oh, dearest doctor, if only I could inflict such a fate on you! Too bad my weapons can't make the jump from Wonderland to reality. She pursed her lips contemplatively. Although I suppose any old butcher's knife would do for the Vorpal Blade. . .but it just wouldn't be the same.
Well, that was a thought for another time – she still had to find her way through the rest of this dollhouse. She'd never encountered one quite so large and well-furnished before – did that mean she was getting close to the Dollmaker's headquarters? She glanced over at the bloodstained bed on the opposite side of the room, and the crib sporting a ruby red mouth right behind where the Ruin had taken up residence. Yes, I must be. Eugh. . .hopefully soon we'll come to the end of all this horror.
She chopped up a couple of cakes to refresh herself, then hopped over the hole that had so stymied the Ruin and blasted through the brittle barrier it had been protecting. Behind it was a bloody-eyed lever, twitching wildly and watching her every move. Trying to convince herself it was still better than the ones from the Cellar, she grabbed the pole and pulled.
The ceiling behind her creaked, flipping down to reveal a staircase of blocks. So she was expected on the second floor, then? Alice readied her Blade and hopped up the letters. A. . .L. . .N. . .aaaaand – Nothing?
Alice blinked, disoriented. She'd thought for sure she would have been set upon by at least a roving gang of Slithering Ruin. But no – this room was empty of anything living. Shaking off her surprise, she investigated her surroundings. Another bed soiled with splashes of crimson. . .some shelving and a toy baby's carriage piled high with spare arms and legs. . .a doorway to another room on her far left. . .and on her right–
A toy piano.
The fury that shot through her veins was enough to make her wonder if she'd tripped an invisible Ragebox. It wasn't like the piano was anything horrible – despite being shoved under a square of bright red box shelves housing nine doll heads in varying states of decay, it was easily the brightest and cheeriest piece of furniture in the room. Alice had a feeling her younger self would have liked to have it as part of her collection, to plonk on as she pleased (instead of when Nanny pleased). And yet, the very sight of it made her want to break something with her Hobby Horse. Maybe it was that she knew Victor would be horrified to see his favorite instrument, however pleasant-looking, in a place like this. Maybe it was that finding a piano here brought back all the happy moments she'd spent with him at the keyboard of Houndsditch's upright and tried to pervert them into something painful.
Maybe it was simply that it reminded her that she still had no idea what was happening to her beloved in the real world.
The flame-eyed unicorn was in her hands almost before she'd decided to summon it. She marched up to the instrument with gritted teeth, ready to smash it into oblivion and claim whatever spoils dropped from the wreckage–
One of the doll heads moved.
Alice froze, Hobby Horse held in front of her in expectation of a trap. But there was no sudden flow of Ruin into the room, no telltale squeal of a Doll Girl ready to "play." The heads just noiselessly gasped for a minute, then returned to inertness. Alice stared at them, brow furrowed. Now what had that been for?
Her gaze caught something she hadn't noticed before – a series of striped pipes connecting shelves to piano. A curious hypothesis entered her head, and she pressed a key to test it.
The left top corner head's mouth flew open, releasing a discordant note. She pressed another, and the very center head spread its jaws to sing. Aha – a musical lock, just like back in the temple of the Origami Ants. Clearly there was some door she hadn't seen that required a melody before it would spring open. Alice dismissed the Horse and ran her fingers over the keyboard, memorizing which notes linked to which mouth, then looked up at the heads. "When you're ready."
The jaws opened and closed obligingly, and Alice copied them on the keys once they were done. The song that resulted wasn't precisely pretty, but it sounded a lot better than she had expected. A second game of mimed Simon Says followed, then a third. Alice giggled as she completed the final tune. Why, I'm practically ready for Carnegie Hall! Of course, Victor would have solved this in half the time. Or perhaps just convinced the path to reveal itself with one of his own marvelous compositions. She closed her eyes and let her mind wander back. Victor seated at the upright, playing with a skill he'd honed over years of practice; her either at his side or ensconced in one of the nearby chairs, listening intently as her soul rose and fell with the wild notes, and the children –
The children. . . .
Alice folded her arms tight across her chest, resisting tears. "No melody should soothe this outrage," she whispered, banishing the happy thoughts back into the recesses of her mind. Much as she wished otherwise, there was no room for them here. Not while the little ones still suffered. Not while Bumby still walked free.
A thunk to her left got her to open her eyes again, revealing that the wall there had dropped open. Beyond, she could see more quilted earth, and – train tracks! Another stop on the Looking-Glass Line! Alice nearly darted right off the edge in her eagerness to see if she'd caught the Infernal Train at last, but checked herself at the last moment. Wait – what's in that room behind the bed? Mustn't neglect my duty to memory. . . . She turned around and circled back to investigate.
And indeed there was a memory there, though it took smashing through a wall of brittle gingerbread men, slashing up more cockroach cake, and shrinking into a keyhole tunnel to find it. And Alice was not sure the reward was at all worth it – a pair of glittering glasses, which, when shattered, took her back to when Bumby had been describing his practice to a curious passerby: "Remaking children. Build them up, tear them down, refashion them. Teach them the new – forget the old!" How did I never see it. . .he was worse than Barkis sometimes for being obvious! She abandoned the derelict room where the memory had lurked and made her way back toward the station. Maybe I'll be lucky and some other, more astute human being will have already turned him in. Wouldn't it be funny if he ended up in my old cell. . .makes me wish I'd taken a moment to use the chamberpot.
As she dropped onto the rusted and rotted tracks that led to the Dollhouse stop, quiet giggling caught her ear. She turned to see an Insane Child, hair matted and missing her two front teeth, watching her with a purple crayon clutched in her fist. "Oh my – you're the one who's been scribbling all over the landscape, aren't you?" Alice asked, hurrying over. "How did you escape the slaughter?"
The Child crouched down and mimed pulling a blanket over her head. "I see. . .well, I'm glad at least one of you got away. I'm so sorry about the others."
The Child patted her hand, then turned around and started doodling on a nearby wall. "Your platforms saved my skin a few times back in the Cellars. . .is the Train here? Or the Dollmaker?"
No response except the grind of the crayon's tip on the rough wood. "Can't speak, then?"
The Child shook her head, then pointed at her invisible artwork. "Right, thank you. . . ." Taking a deep breath, Alice shrank down to make the mural clear. Dollmaker – Insane Child – Doll Girl – and then –
She'd known more or less what was happening to the children all throughout the Dollhouse. On some level, she suspected she'd known for quite a lot longer than that. But still, to see it spelled out like this. . . . Oh, Nanny. . .you were wrong, she thought, biting her lip as she came back to normal size and the little artist scurried away. Not just food for perverts.
Food for the Infernal Train.
Well. . .I guess in its own twisted way, this is very appropriate. Wonderland and I were both fond of playing with mirror images, after all.
Alice sighed, shattering the doll heads that glared at her from both sides of the glass-and-screws slide leading back down into the Cellars. She no longer needed the teeth, not by a long shot, but neither did she need those chipped porcelain sockets glaring at her. Especially not when she was about to see Victor here for the final time. Funny – it's even on the opposite side from back in the Vale, she thought as she walked over to the crystal butterfly. How I wish I could just pick it up and carry it with me instead of smashing it to pieces. . . .
But sadly, that was not how things worked around here. Especially not in the hell that was the Dollhouse. She took a moment to examine it minutely, taking in every last detail of what was likely to be the last even-near-happy thing she'd see in a while. Then she nodded and drew it close in a tight embrace. All right then – what's his parting message to me?
The sound echoed around the room, nearly sending Alice straight into the ceiling from fright. Her first instinct was to rush to the window and see if some fool had been shot in the street. Then heavy footsteps stormed her way, and she realized what she'd heard was actually Dr. Bumby's office door slamming into the wall. Right, Victor had just had his latest session. . .she poked her head out the door to see him round the corner, murder in his eyes. "Master Van Dort, some decorum!" Bumby called after him, sounding quite disappointed.
Victor didn't reply – just continued along the hall at a steady stomp. "Have fun?" Alice asked flippantly, stepping outside as he passed the boys' room.
"I hate him," Victor growled, fingers flexing as if they longed to wrap around the psychiatrist's throat. "I hate how he calls me foolish for believing in Emily's existence, I hate how he always has to be right, I hate how bossy he is, how he won't give me a moment's peace–"
"There, there, it's over now," Alice said, patting his arm. "You've earned your freedom for the week."
"No I haven't – he's set me up for another appointment on Tuesday, right after yours!" Victor paced up and down before her, yanking hard at the knot of his tie. "I'm tempted not to go. He can't make me – all he can do is yell. Perhaps I'll just disappear into the city for the day and not return until dinnertime. Or at all. It's not like I don't know where the hotels are in this wretched city."
"Can you afford more than half an hour's stay is the real question," Alice reminded him, shaking her head. Oh dear, this kind of scene was slowly becoming more and more common around the Home. Victor and Bumby were getting on each other's last nerve after so long with no progress on either end. But Alice knew Victor would never actually abandon Houndsditch. He cared too much about her and the children, poor dear man. Even if it would be in his best interest to vanish softly and suddenly away, he always put the needs of others before his own. Nell and William had trained him far too well. His temper was like guncotton – it could get very hot, but it always burned itself out quickly. He'd be embarrassed by this display by the end of the day, and trying to make up for it the rest of the week. "Bumby is an arse, we all know that," she added, trying to soothe him. "But he really is just trying to help."
"Nonsense," Victor snarled. The pure venom in his tone made Alice step back, suddenly wondering if she'd misjudged just how angry he was this time. "All he wants is to win. And he doesn't give a damn if that involves making me do something that feels wrong down to the very depths of my soul!" He flung his arms wide. "How many times do I have to say it – I don't want to forget! I don't care if my memories make me a pariah – they're important to me! I wish he'd understand that! How you put up with him sometimes is beyond me!"
And then he was gone, replaced with a half-empty, busted bookcase that looked about ready to tip over and crush her. Alice half-wanted it to. Mirror images indeed. . .what was it she'd said to Bumby right before this whole mess had started? "I want to forget! Who would choose to be alone, imprisoned by their broken memories?"
Victor would. That moment she'd just seen – that had been a mere two days before her own fateful session. And while Victor's anger had burned out by dinnertime, and he had gone ahead and kept returning to the couch (as far as she knew, anyway), he'd never broken to Bumby's will. The doctor had argued with him, cajoled him, threatened him – and Victor had thrown it all back in his face, hanging onto his memories with an iron grip. He'd never cared if people thought him strange, or if his parents hated him for being stubborn, or if refusal brought extra pain into his life. He knew what was right, and he was not going to be swayed. Despite the psychiatrist's best methods, he'd never given Bumby an inch, fighting the man with everything he had.
He'd been stronger than her.
She could already hear his arguments against this in her mind. He'd never suffered like she had; she was incredibly strong just for surviving, just for getting out of Rutledge; no one could blame her for wanting to escape the pain. All true – and all irrelevant. She'd fallen down where it mattered the most. She should have never let Bumby into her mind in the first place. She should have tried harder to remember, to discover the truth earlier. Even in Rutledge, she'd thought there was something odd about the Dinah story – but she'd been exhausted from fighting the Queen, and the memories were so painful. . .but even painful memories were worth holding onto. And now – now she was just as ruined as the creatures that attacked her. And maybe so was everyone else.
"If you're hoping to cleanse the world via a flood, you'll have to find yourself another piece of the Queen's favorite cake."
Alice wiped her eyes as the Cheshire Cat materialized beside her. "Or I suppose the Toadstool of Life would do," he continued, tail flicking. "If only our woods were more than smoke and ash. So close to the endgame – why stop playing now?"
". . .Do you think he's safe, Cat?"
Cheshire flicked an ear, making his earring sway. "Is anyone really safe? The world is a dangerous and cruel place."
"I know, but – Bumby doesn't like him. Or, well, he doesn't like that Victor won't do as he wishes. I think he – he might –" "It felt like he was looking awfully hard at – the a-area in question. . .sometimes, after he wakes me from a session, I'll find him – leaning over me. Watching me rather intently." And then there was the dance, where Bumby had come on them with rage in his eyes – rage and a disturbing possessiveness. . . . "–might like Victor himself," she finished, shuddering. "Not to mention Victor doesn't know what I know. It's like with Barkis – he understands Bumby's not nice, but he hasn't yet guessed the man's evil." She crouched down to meet Cheshire's eyes. "You've all said before you wouldn't keep me if his life was in danger, but there's more ways of killing a person than just stopping their heart. If Bumby's finally gotten the chance to try radical treatments – or even thrown him into Rutledge as a 'lost cause. . . .' I've lost everything else, Cat. Even Wonderland is nearly gone now, thanks to that damnable Train." Her vision grew wet again. "I don't want – I can't lose him as well."
Cheshire leaned forward, his nose bumping against her. "The only way to make sure you don't is to keep moving. You still have foes to fight, battles to win. Your boy can take care of himself – he has been so far, hasn't he?"
"But what if he can't?" Alice whispered.
"Then you save him." The Cat's voice darkened. "Or avenge him. Either way – would he want you to be standing around moping? Or would he encourage you onward, and damn the consequences?"
Pictures fluttered through her mind – battling an Army Ant in her favorite London dress, braving the Looking-Glass chessboard in a bishop's hat, soaring through Queensland's steam on angel wings. A new swell of determination rose up inside her. Alice nodded, straightening up and blinking her eyes clear. "Right," she nodded, back straight and tall. "Thank you, Cat. You've actually been helpful for once."
"Well, I confess to not being entirely altruistic," Cheshire said, getting onto all fours and winding around her legs. "Victor did say that he'd blame me if you weren't at Radcliffe's that day Jack Splatter split you in twain. Encouraging you to keep on course is the only apology I can give. After that incident with the Queen, I'd prefer not to incur anyone's wrath, even his."
Alice laughed. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. He'd probably just snap at you for a few minutes, then apologize within the hour."
Cheshire grinned brightly at her as his flesh began to fade. "The small chance of sustaining multiple fork wounds keeps my curiosity tempered with caution."
Moments later, his smile winked out of existence. Alice jumped onto the slide and pushed off, steering around hot globs of Ruin with practiced ease. Her friend was right – hanging around thinking about things she couldn't change wasn't going to help anyone. There was no time to waste. The sooner she cleared this – this infection out of her head, the quicker she could be back in the real world. And the quicker I can check up on Victor.
Of course, the Dollmaker was not going to let her off that easily. As the slide came to an end, she launched herself into the air – and almost immediately into the grasp of a Menacing Ruin. "Gah!" She butterflied away, only to hear the telltale squeal of a Doll Girl from the right side of the room – and then, a second, from the left. "Oh, perfect. . . ."
Fortunately, the bit she'd landed on was separated from the rest of the arena by a healthy gap and a raised platform. As the Girls wandered round and round in circles along the outside edge (one, blonde, wielding scissors, and the other, brunette, sporting hook-hands), Alice concentrated her fury on the Ruin. It was harder to dodge those gigantic gooey hands and lava-hot fireballs when you had only a small square of wood to do so on, but she managed, smashing its protective china arms and then severing each face one by one. All right, she thought as the platform dropped down with a slight bump. A few cupfuls of tea for the blonde, then a round of pepper for the –
The floor beneath her reverberated with a heavy "THUD" as the blonde Doll Girl leapt across the gap and landed right in front of her. "What – that is not fair!" Alice shrieked, jumping for safety as a scissor half took off a few centimeters of hair. "I'm the only one who's supposed to be able to jump like that!"
The blonde Doll Girl paid this absolutely no mind, leaping after her as her sister came waddling up from the other side. Alice butterflied around the sharp hooks, then whirled with Teapot Cannon in hand, blasting them both at once. New plan – just keep hitting them and don't stop!
This more or less worked – switching from Cannon to Pepper Grinder and back as each overheated was easy enough, and both Girls proved as vulnerable to the combination as all their siblings. But she still took a few blows from the Girls' playful stomping – and when the blonde one finally died, body collapsing into a pile of broken parts, an entire swarm of Bitch Babies popped up from nowhere to take her place. "Damn it damn it damn it. . . ." By the end of the fight, she was sore, bleeding, and smelt quite horribly of sweat and poisonous vomit.
But she was alive, and that was the main thing. She snatched up every flower of meta-essence that remained, then carved her initials into the wall out of pure spite. After a moment's consideration, she added a "+ VVD" under them, and etched a heart around the lot, figuring that would tick the Dollmaker off even more. "That's right, not yours and never will be – now how do I get out of here?"
A set of blue eye blocks with bouncy mushrooms on their tops provided the answer. Alice hopped across them onto another weathered platform hanging in midair. Past a brittle wall of melted china children lay her goal – a burning Liddell door, hopefully the last she'd ever have to see. Alice ran forward and flung it open, readying herself for whatever memory might come. Would this one at last be the key to –
The key. . . .
I had a role in my family's demise.
The key Bumby kept on his watch chain.
But I did not start the fire.
The key that he used to hypnotize his patients.
Centaurs don't live in Oxford. . .but a certain doctor did.
The key she'd always thought looked a bit familiar, but just couldn't place.
I saw him – a preening undergraduate.
The key that proved he'd been in her house that night.
Now I remember him!
The key that proved he'd been the one to destroy her life.
"That key belongs to Lizzie's room!"
"Am I not the most wretched and selfish of fortune's fools? Oblivious, I live in a training ground for prostitutes! My mentor is an abuser and purveyor! I've been complicit with my sister's murderer, and the killer of my family, as he corrupted my mind! I sought relief from my pain and you turned me away from the truth!"
The Dollmaker gazed at her impassively from his seat among the mountains of drawers, shelves, boxes, and other storage compartments that made up his home – or, well, he seemed to. It was a bit hard to tell when his eyes were merely fountains of Ruin. He was a strange, stitched-together puppet version of Bumby – at least fifty times bigger than her, with skin like tanned leather. Ruin poured from every available orifice on his face, dripping down his chin in a mockery of the real version's goatee and splattering onto the boards below him. Oversized doll heads, much like the ones which appeared on his pets, were embedded into the backs of his gnarled hands, held in place by heavy nails. They clicked as he untangled his fingers, mouths chanting soundless words. The evil coming off him was palpable – if he'd ever appeared in a Punch and Judy show, her mother would have taken to the streets to have them banned immediately.
Something went clack nearby, and Alice looked down to see an Insane Child, limbs and torso encased in porcelain, lying in the middle of the workspace, squirming and crying. She stepped forward, ready to mount a rescue, but the Dollmaker was faster, scooping the unfortunate Child up in one jagged-nailed hand. "You were almost there," he commented as he rummaged around in one of the rough-hewn drawers that served for pockets on his waistcoat. Even his words seemed to ooze from between his needle-sharp teeth. "Almost free from what you fear. You could have been cured. You could have forgotten."
Alice glared, fists clenched tight. "Abandon the memory of my family?"
"They are dead," the Dollmaker replied, pulling out a one-eyed, stubble-scalped doll's head. The Child struggled mightily, wailing "Noo, nooooo!" over and over, but it was no use. The china head closed over her own – and as the pieces clicked shut, she went limp as a corpse. The Dollmaker admired his handiwork, then glowered at Alice. "And you should be too."
"Well, I'm not," Alice snarled. "I've defeated everything you've thrown at me, you – you misbegotten abomination! Murderer! You blood-sucking parasite! The damage you've done to children!" She fought back a threatening crack in her voice as she turned her gaze to the ceiling. More Insane Children hung there, pierced by cruel meat hooks, all in various states of dollification. It had been like that all throughout the monster's sanctum. Alice had done her best to sever the strings, or knock the little ones loose with her weapons, but sadly, she'd been helpless in the face of the Dollmaker's evil. No, their only hope – and hers – was direct confrontation. "The abuse!"
The Dollmaker shrugged. "I provide a service," he said, dropping the completed doll into a nearby chute. "In the great and awful metropolis, appetites of all sorts must be – gratified."
Alice decided that not vomiting in response to that statement qualified her for some sort of prize. Especially since it brought up a nasty image of what sort of appetites she might have gratified. She fought against the scenes of a pale imitation of life barely avoided, struggling for her next subject. "My family. . .my mind. . .the Infernal Train. . . ."
The Dollmaker inclined his head as another Child dropped down beside him. "The Train is your – invention, your defense," he explained, picking up the sobbing boy. "I merely set its schedule and itinerary." He smirked as he extracted another head from his waistcoat and silenced the Child forever. "The train is coming with its shiny cars/With comfy seats, and wheels of stars/So hush my little ones and have no fear/The man in the moon is the engineer."
"I never–" Alice started, then stopped. No – the Dollmaker had a point, much as she was loathe to admit it. The Infernal Train had been built in Wonderland factories, by Wonderland residents. It might have been built at his direction, but she'd been the one to open the door and let him in. To abandon her previous train of thought for another. God, what a fool she'd been. . . .
But at the same time it disgusted her that she was the real reason that vile metal beast had been allowed to rampage through Wonderland, it also gave her hope. If the Train was truly her invention, that meant it was subject to her laws, her desires, not Bumby's. And if she desired it to be no more. . . . "I'll stop that Train – if it's the last thing I do," she swore, glaring up at the Dollmaker with steely resolve practically leaking out her ears.
Another shrug – and then, suddenly, one of the bony, sewn-together hands reached out and enveloped her. "As you wish – it will be!"
"What are you doing? Let me go!" Alice shrieked, stabbing at his fingers.
The Dollmaker ignored the pain – if indeed he felt any at all. There was a rustling from beyond the darkness – then he seized her right arm and stretched it out stiff. The Vorpal Blade fell from her fingers as coldness wrapped around the limb. Alice tried to yank it back, but it didn't want to obey her commands anymore. Glancing between his fingers, she saw – smooth creamy porcelain. No – no no no!
Her left foot lashed out in a haze of rage and panic, but the Dollmaker simply caught it between his finger and thumb, and ripped off the boot. He did the same to her right, then yanked off her stockings. Alice kicked again, but first one leg, then the other, was covered in naked china, and they went limp and weak. Next he pulled off her dress, shredding it to bits (Alice tried to cover herself with the arm still under her control), and snapped a bare torso around her chest and belly. Her lungs strained to get the air they needed in their chill prison. Shit, God no. . .what happens when he puts the head on? I can't have come this far just to fail now!
And then, as her other arm was deadened by porcelain, she remembered the mural the last free Insane Child had drawn for her. Children into dolls. . .and then dolls dumped onto the Infernal Train. Which was parked right underneath this very workshop. By the state of things in Wonderland, there was nowhere else for it to go. . .and no other chances for her to board. If he thinks he's won, and drops me in with the others. . .I just hope I can hold onto myself long enough to take advantage of it!
The Dollmaker gave her a shark's smile as he pulled out the head (two eyes on hers – how kind of him). "You're lost. And where your body is, your mind will follow. Perhaps it's already there."
Alice spat at him in one last show of defiance. The Dollmaker chuckled, popped the head open, then forced hers up. She bit back a scream as the false skin enveloped her, and the coldness bit into her neck –
And then, blackness.