"I – I can't–"
"Yes you can, Victor," Alice pressed, squeezing his hands between hers. "Come on. It's there. You know it's there."
"I – I can f-feel it, I just can't–" Victor screwed up his eyes tighter. "There's – there's a – a ballroom? And – some girl in a bright yellow dress. . . ."
"Right. Keep going. Ignore the voice. You can grab it. You can do this."
"And I – I was going to make Mother p-proud for a change, and – owww!"
Victor's hands yanked free of hers, fingers digging hard into his scalp. "No, no, I – she – I was – damn it!" One fist bounced off the mattress. "I. . .no, it's gone. And I almost had it too. . . ."
Alice rubbed his shoulder. "It's all right, Victor. You did well."
"Not well enough." Victor pressed hard on his temples. "He just came out of nowhere, like – like a train running me over. . .why does this have to be so difficult? It's been a month!"
"Well, we still have nineteen days until Christmas," Alice reminded him, trying a playful smile.
Victor looked miserably up at her. "I – I don't know if I'm going to make it, Alice. It's just – I'm sorry."
Alice sighed, then pulled him into a hug. "It's all right if you don't," she reassured him. "It would have been wonderful, but – these things do take time. I needed a ten year run-up to even think about facing the Queen. And afterward. . .I'd say I was seventy-five percent myself at most when they released me into Bumby's care. Even now, with Londerland, I'd only put myself in the low nineties." She pulled away, giving him an encouraging look. "You've done remarkably well for someone who's had thirty days."
"I suppose," Victor murmured, eyes on the comforter. "Though, honestly, that makes this more frustrating in a way. I've stopped slipping into being Thirteen, I've learned to say no again, I've even successfully defended the children!" He waved a hand around his head. "Shouldn't getting my memories back be the easiest part of all that?"
"Nothing regarding Bumby and his 'therapy' should be considered easy," was Alice's opinion. "It took me a months-long trek over almost every nook and cranny of Wonderland to recover everything he tried to hide from me." Or, at least, I think it's everything. . .no, Alice, you can't worry about if he managed to wipe something from your mind for good. You're already going to have nightmares about what could have been for the rest of your life. You got everything important – just keep moving forward. "But it can be done. You know that – tell me again, what's the name of the oldest skeleton in the Land of the Dead?"
"Elder Gutknecht," Victor said softly.
"Where did you punch Jack Splatter right in the face?"
His lips quirked upward. "On Billingsgate Dock, right in front of the burning Mangled Mermaid."
"And why did you set poor Lady Everglot's dress on fire again?"
He snorted, smiling in earnest now. "Because I was an idiot who forgot to put down my candle after I dropped the wedding ring under her skirt. Really, why the Everglots didn't call things off right then and there. . . ." He sighed, face falling again. "But I still don't remember what the house I grew up in looked like. I don't remember who my governesses were. I don't remember why I prefer quills for drawing. I don't remember the song I was playing when I first met Victoria. I don't remember the vows I said when I accidentally proposed to Emily. I–" He swallowed, lifting his gaze to hers. "I don't remember the first time I saw your face."
Alice leaned forward, pressing their foreheads together. "You will. Perhaps it'll take a decade, but you will. We're too stubborn to let that arse of a crow win."
Victor set his jaw and nodded. "Right."
Alice nodded back. "Right." She pulled back again. "So then – up for another round?"
"I – I know I should, but that last one really hurt," Victor confessed, rubbing the side of his head. "I need a little break first."
"That's fine too," Alice reassured him. "Want a game of cards? Read another article in one of your encyclopedias?"
"Actually, what I'd like to do most of all right now is nap." Victor smiled ruefully at her. "You know how well I slept last night."
Alice grimaced, recalling waking up to a scream and her beloved trying to clamber over her, feet twisted up in the bedclothes, as he ran from an imaginary Bumby. "I'm just glad you didn't hurt yourself."
"I'm glad I didn't hurt you," Victor replied, face now serious. "I just – I could feel his hands all over me, and I couldn't. . . ." He shivered. "I don't think I would have gotten back to sleep at all if you hadn't been there."
"I doubt it," Alice agreed. "Just one more reason to be grateful Dr. Wilson is willing to overlook a thing or two." She wrapped her arm around him and pulled him down to the pillow. "Catching up on our rest sounds an excellent idea – and besides, I've got business to attend to."
She nodded. "I've put off a certain visit long enough."
Victor ran his fingers through her hair. "I hope she doesn't try to hurt you."
"She probably will – but I know how to handle her by now." Alice stroked his head. "Wake me if you have another nightmare, all right?"
"I can't – it's the afternoon, I'd have a daymare."
Alice lightly smacked his arm. "You say you barely remember the Land of the Dead, then turn around and make puns like that. . .whatever mare it might be, wake me. I won't leave you to suffer them alone."
"I know." He wriggled around and stretched his legs before nuzzling into the pillow. "Safe journey."
"Thank you. Sweet dreams." She waited for him to close his eyes, then shut her own and concentrated. The darkness spun around her, a swirling tunnel of black –
And then, suddenly, it flashed into brilliant blue, sending her floating down through a layer of light fluffy clouds to a field of checked green. Four figures waited for her below – two carved in bright red, two in palest white. Alice twirled, grabbing her skirts as they poofed up to approximate a curtsy. "Hello, Your Majesties! You're all looking well today!" Her boots met the turf, and she let her arms drop. "Especially you, Red Queen."
The Red Queen – the real one, with her pedestal foot, stuck-up nose, and thorny crown – dipped her head low in greeting. "It is a pleasure to be alive again," she said. "Though it does give one a bit of a jolt to have one's memories skip from one's head being severed by a tentacle to one waking up in one's own bed."
"I can't give you memories of being dead," Alice pointed out. "If only because Wonderland sadly does not link up with the Land of such. Besides, I don't think you would have liked being blue. Or purple, as the case may be."
The Red Queen critically examined an arm. "No. . .for if I were purple, the Pales would have to become the Pinks, and that would confuse terribly the issue of who laid claim to which side of the board."
"Do you really think she'll want to see you?" the White Queen suddenly cried, fanning herself.
Alice blinked – then remembered how previous conversations with the Queen had gone in her youth. "Right. . .I'm afraid I can't stay long. I only came to make sure everything was all right before I headed back to Card's side of the world. I must meet with the Queen of Hearts."
There was a long period of silence. "Aren't you going to answer me first again?" Alice finally asked, tapping a foot.
"I was, but then I remembered you getting a bit cross with me and decided not to," the White Queen said, shrugging. Her shawl slipped dangerously low as she did, her ever-contrary brooch flopping open. "Oh, this dratted thing. . . ."
"Allow me, my dear," the White King said, straightening the delicate scrap of fabric and fastening the pin. "We must get you a proper lady's maid now that things are settled."
"Indeed – I've said that putting your hair in papers would do wonders for you," the Red Queen agreed, taking a moment to fix up her counterpart's bun. "In fact, I've said it twice now, and that proves it twice over."
"I'm sure there's some pawn who would gladly take jam yesterday and jam tomorrow for the job," Alice said with a fond smile. "Which reminds me – how's Lily?"
"She means my imperial kitten," the White Queen said to the Red Queen. "If she'd meant your garden glory she would have added a tiger!"
"Growing faster than a weed, and even less tolerant of the daisies than before," the Red Queen replied, an old hand at backward conversations herself. "And a tiger would not have anything to do with my garden if it knew what was good for it! The elephants would chase it away faster than a Bandersnatch!"
The White Queen nodded. "She's well," she told Alice. "Though – the poor thing does have nightmares, sometimes."
"I'm not surprised," Alice said, biting her lip as she remembered a sharp thunk of metal through ivory, and her sudden realization of just why she'd been given the Queen's most precious pawn on her trip to Red's side of the board. "But at least we know she'll make a fine Queen when she grows up."
"Oh yes! She's doing marvelously in her studies!" the White Queen gushed. "She can spell words of two letters now!"
"Which is better than you did in your examination," the Red Queen added with a stern look at Alice. "Are you improved in your maths, at least? What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?"
Alice smirked. "Ten."
Both Queens goggled. "I – I only got up to five before I lost count! How did you do that?" the White Queen demanded.
"You learn to sum quickly when you're surrounded by creatures all out for your blood – particularly swarms of Slithering Ruins. There's something about danger that concentrates the mind wonderfully." Alice sighed. "Speaking of which, I never did answer your question before – she may not want to see me, but she must. There's some final business we have before I can leave her to her crumbling castle."
"I hope it involves telling her how dreadfully rude it is to take things that are not yours – especially lives," the Red Queen huffed. "Particularly as she's more pink than red even on a good day."
"Indeed – if it were up to me, we'd annex her palace," the White King agreed, scowling. "See how the malignant royal bitch likes having her game co-opted. You played more chess than cards in your youth, after all."
"Perhaps, but I did enjoy a good game of Authors from time to time – and technically, the Card kingdom came first," Alice reminded him. She rocked on her heels. "Besides – seeing you strung up in her tentacles once was enough. I'm still sorry I had to smash my way through you."
"The harm done has been repaired," the White King assured her, spreading his arms. "See? Not a crack. And as I said, better dead by your hand than by that Infernal Train's."
"The Train didn't have hands," Alice couldn't help saying.
"Which is partly why better dead by yours."
Alice chuckled, then glanced at the Red King. "You've been awfully quiet. You haven't fallen asleep again, have you?"
The Red King glanced at her from under his crown. "I wish I could. My dreams of you have turned to nightmares."
Alice winced. "Yes, I'm not that surprised there either. . .I'm sorry. I didn't take any joy in killing you, if it helps."
"I took no joy in fighting you. I knew the moment you stepped on the board it was going to end in my checkmate."
"Hardly a fair one – the Queen is supposed to defend her King," the Red Queen declared, putting a protective arm around her mate. "We may live backwards sometimes here, but that's against the rules."
"The Queen of Hearts has never cared much for those," Alice reminded her. "At any rate, if you count smashing the White King to bits, I've checkmated both sides in my adventures, so we should just consider it even and not worry any more about it. And so long as you don't shoot any more rays of burning light at me, Red King, I shall leave you to your duties as monarch."
"I am more than happy to leave you to your duties as savior," the Red King replied. "But tell the Queen of No Heart that she is not welcome in the Crimson Realm ever again."
"Nor the Pale," the White King nodded decisively.
"I'm quite sure she's already guessed that, but I'll repeat it for your sake."
"Of course the Rooks can lead you there! The Rooks can lead you anywhere!" the White Queen said, then giggled. "Listen to that, I made a rhyme!"
Alice giggled too. "Well done – now, can the Rooks lead me to a portal to Queensland? I'd find the train station, but – I'm not quite ready to ride the Looking-Glass Line yet."
"You shouldn't – there's a fabulous monster manning it these days," the Red Queen reported. "Head of an eagle and tail of a lion! Neither the Lion nor the Unicorn know where to have him!"
"Oh, that's just Gryphon! He's the Mock Turtle's friend. Since Mock has his ship now, I thought Gryphon should take over the running of the Line," Alice explained. "Please give him a chance – he is a fabulous monster, but in the positive sense. He was the leader of the Wonderland resistance – I would have never taken down the Jabberwock without his help. And he'd be quite obliged if you asked him to sing for you."
The Red Queen eyed her. "I should hope he would be – royal commands are not to be trifled with." She relaxed a little. "But perhaps I will say hello. So long as he doesn't soak my dress."
Alice snorted. "Don't worry – he cries much less than Mock."
"We've set up a portal in the clock tower," the White King told her, pointing with his scepter to the glittering white castle village on the right of the grassy board. "We'll take you as far as the pub, then the Rooks can take you the rest of the way. We'll have to hurry, though – it's almost time for another game."
"Back to endless war already?"
"A Queen must always defend her crown," the Red Queen said, touching her own lovingly. "As you well know. Though I must say, it's unfair of you to deprive us of two players."
"I'm sorry, but as long as the Monroes draw breath, the Tweedles must stay far away from anyone I actually like." Alice curtsied again. "I'm sure you'll find someone to make up the lack. I'll come and have a proper visit soon."
"Yes, of course we'll have cake – and we won't introduce you to the joint this time," the White Queen said, setting off with purpose across the squares of green.
"We'll have another banquet to celebrate," the Red Queen said for context.
"Will you? How kind," Alice filled in. "Will there be cake?"
The White Queen frowned. "You didn't do that in quite the right order."
"Sorry – I'll try to be quicker next time." Alice waved at the Red King and Queen. "Whenever we meet again! Have a good game!"
The trip to the Pale Realm's village was a quick one, happily. The Rooks were right outside the pub as they came up, lounging around with tankards of dry biscuits. They snapped to attention as their King approached. "Take this young lady to the clock tower portal," he commanded. "Be quick about it – as quick as a Bandersnatch." He looked at Alice. "And you – be careful. She may be at a fraction of her power – but any power is dangerous with her."
"Don't I know it," Alice murmured. "But it has to be done. I have no intentions of letting her surprise me."
The White King nodded. "Then we'll see you at the banquet."
"Poor lamb, I do hope she'll be safe," the White Queen whispered, clinging to his arm.
"I'll see you then – and don't worry. I've beat her at her absolute worst – I don't intend for her to ever get the better of me again." Alice curtsied one last time. "Good game."
"Good talk," the White King replied.
"We'll see." Alice fell into step behind the Rooks as they slid away, grunting to each other.
It wasn't far to the tower, and the trip didn't take nearly as long when you didn't have to navigate a maze of spikes and bottomless pits, nor dodge angry Bishops trying to sear your arm off. Alice thanked the Rooks as they dropped her off at the entrance, then climbed the stairs to the very top. Right behind the clock was what she sought – a simple door frame, filled with pulsing green and gold light. Alice watched it a moment, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Time to pull the bandage off," she mumbled, and stepped through.
The swirling energy tickled her skin, and then the sharp scent of decay hit her nose. Alice opened her eyes to find herself in Heart Palace's courtyard. It looked much the same as it had the last time she'd visited – flagstones cracked and chipping, earth baked brown and dead, tentacles frozen in fossilized curls overhead. This time, however, there was no sign of any chess soldiers, red or white, living or dead. "Good – seems I've properly untangled the two realms after all," Alice said with a pleased nod, folding her arms across her chest.
Arms which were suddenly gloved, she noticed. "Oh, this dress again?" She turned this way and that, examining the Royal Suit of red and black now clothing her body. "Well, I guess if I'm here for what might constitute a friendly chat, I may as well wear her colors." She tapped a foot thoughtfully against the ground. "Now, what's the best way–"
". . .You are kidding me."
Alice whirled around, Vorpal Blade flying into her hand. Stomping through the archway at the top of the courtyard was an unfortunately familiar figure of patchwork cards and squirming tentacles. "I stepped on you!" she yelled as it glared down at her. "I saw you go squish! How are you up and walking around again?"
The Executioner just growled, grinding his absurdly sharp teeth against each other. Alice sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Look – I am in no mood for another game of chase through the endless corridors of this hellhole," she informed him, hands on her hips. "I'm simply here to have a chat with your mistress. I promise you I don't mean her any harm. So if you could just let me get on with things? Please?"
The Executioner grunted, smacking the stick of his scythe against the ground. The tentacles threaded through his eye sockets bulged, and he tilted his head, as if listening to some whispered command. Then he roared and lifted his weapon high over his head. Shit, Alice thought, scanning her surroundings as quick as she dared. All right, if I'm fast, I can leap across those bits of flooring to where I found the Duchess's basket, and maybe try – "AAAAAHH!"
The scythe pierced the earth in front of her, causing a dark tunnel to open up beneath her feet and send her tumbling into blackness. God damn it, I forgot about that stupid trick of his! she thought angrily, spinning to puff out her skirts and slow her descent. Now where's that overgrown Joker sent me this – oh.
Alice blinked as she passed through a web of raw, bloody red flesh into an open chamber dominated by a tarnished, meaty throne. "I really didn't expect you to be so accommodating," she admitted as she drifted down to the receiving platform.
The Queen of Hearts glared at her from her perch. "And have you tear apart what little remains of my army?" she said, voice high and petulant. "I don't think so!"
"Those Card Guards aren't endless? You could have fooled me." Alice grimaced as her boots squelched against the floor. "And that Executioner of yours is worth a whole pack. How did he pop back up from my heel, pray tell?"
"Winding a few new tentacles through him was no work at all," the Queen replied, tones now as deep and rich as any highborn lady's. They raised back to a child-like squeal as she continued. "What will be is replacing those soldiers you tore from my grasp!" She jabbed her scepter at Alice's face. "How dare you strip me of my rule of the Crimson Realm! I took their Queen fair and square!"
"I doubt that," Alice said, folding her arms. "And even if you did, that doesn't entitle you to rule Looking-Glass Land. To checkmate, you need to take the King."
"Did I not send him up against you?"
"Yes – which proves you had no idea what you were doing," Alice retorted. "The King is the weakest piece on the board, Your Majesty. My fight with him was the easiest one I had. Granted, I doubt his heart was in it, given you'd stolen his beloved, but even still. Rather embarrassing for the poor man to be shown up by the Tweedles."
"I took White's Queen!"
"And it was a good move," Alice allowed. "But you should have had the Red Rooks take the White King too. Another one of those beheadings you like so much, and you would have quite definitely won the game. Instead, you let me take it for White, and handed me a coterie of soldiers to harry your Card Guards while I invaded your castle."
The Queen of Hearts grumbled. "Chess is too complicated," she muttered. "I merely needed more troops. I needed to be strong."
"You needed to stay where you were and not ruin things for everyone else," Alice snapped. "We were all suffering, and you decided to make it all that much worse. What do you think would have happened if you'd won when I first came here after the fire?" She pointed down the long hall. "What if killing me in here meant killing me out there too? A Pyrrhic victory indeed, erasing yourself from existence at your moment of triumph! And even if you'd survived, what sort of kingdom would you have gained? I'd slaughtered pretty much everything loyal to you on the way to the castle. You'd have ruled over naught but emptiness and ashes."
The Queen scowled, but was silent. "You destroyed lives all over Wonderland – decimated my childhood hopes and dreams and replaced them with madness and guilt," Alice continued, the old hurts aching afresh as she remembered Rabbit and Gryphon and Cheshire. She held up the Vorpal Blade. "I don't think there's a soul outside these walls who would object to me just slitting your throat and having done with it."
"You won't, though," the Queen hissed. Around her, a forest of tentacles squirmed, waiting to strike. "I am the Queen of Hearts – your heart. You can't deny me my rule."
Alice nodded, lowering the Blade. "No, I can't."
The Queen blinked, taken aback. "You and I never got on, but you were always a part of Wonderland," Alice explained, allowing herself a fraction of a second to relish the confusion on the monarch's face. "Always there to inspire me to be better than a screaming toddler. Our monster, as Cheshire put it. You needed to be put down that first time. But to kill you permanently – well, that would be denying that I can be as selfish and cruel and miserable as you. And I'm done denying things, with my hands or my head or my heart. The Duchess, the Hatter, the Red King – I let them live in their own domains. I can allow you to do the same."
The Queen contemplated this for a long moment. "And if I try to expand my kingdom, as is a Queen's royal right?" she asked at last.
"Then you'll find me there to drive you back," Alice said, the Vorpal Blade gleaming in her fingers. "Along with every other creature in Wonderland. Gryphon in particular probably has a bone to pick."
"It wasn't me who tried to eat the Mock Turtle!"
"No, but you were the one who made a pet of the Jabberwock. The one monster who isn't coming back, incidentally. No matter how much he might try."
The Queen huffed. "He was a right pain anyway," she mumbled. "Always going on about you. . .why are you here, anyway?" she added, gesturing violently with her scepter. "Simply to strip me of power and leave me to rot here alone?"
Alice shook her head. "There's a debt to be repaid."
"Debt? I owe you nothing!"
"No, you don't. I owe you. For all your sniping and posturing last time, you did help me learn the truth about Bumby. You set me on the path to destroy him once and for all." Alice smiled faintly. "I made you a promise then. I'm here to fulfill it."
"You, actually keep your promises?" the Queen growled. "Stuff and nonsense! I should just–"
The Queen froze. Around her, the shadows disconnected from her many appendages, pulled in on themselves, and solidified. Alice's smile grew. "I told you I could bring him back. He doesn't look quite the same, I admit, but – you were the one who told me to stop ignoring a perfectly good king."
The Queen gawked at her, then pulled herself up in her seat, craning her head every which way. "My – my king?" she squeaked, eyes glittering.
A black tentacle tangled with her own – and then the King of Hearts emerged from the darkness. He did look very different from the man who'd presided over the Trial of the Tarts and had spent most of his croquet games quietly pardoning the other players. Back then, he'd been an almost exact copy of the card she'd seen so often whiling away the hours with Klondike and card castles, mustachioed and bandy-legged. Now. . .from the waist down, he was an inky squid-like demon, the better to match his bride in this wretched landscape of meat. And from the waist up – well, she'd never seen Victor as a child, but it was easy enough to guess. Skin as white as paper, hair dark as pitch, and a miniature version of his favorite suit, only done in scab red and burnished gold. He gave his Queen one of those shy smiles Alice herself loved so much. "I'm here, my love."
The floodgates burst as the Queen of Hearts flung herself into his arms. "My darling, my darling. . .I missed you so much. . . ."
The King caressed her back, squeezing her tight against him. "I missed you too. I won't ever leave you again, my queen."
One wouldn't think the sight of two tentacled monstrosities embracing would be touching, but the sheer emotion in both monarchs' voices hit something deep in Alice's heart. She'd tried to pretend she was just being pragmatic – clearing up the last of their unfinished business and restoring the best check on the Queen's behavior – but seeing them together. . . . Yes, in the end, she'd simply felt sorry that the Queen no longer had what she'd found. Even a creature such as she deserved love. She swallowed a lump in her throat, trying not to think of how much she wished she and Victor could have had such a happy reunion. "I – I suppose I'll leave you to it," she said, turning on her heel. "Hopefully now you can find better ways of spending your time than ordering executions."
There was no reply – maybe they'd forgotten she was there. Fine by her. She squished her way along the narrow bridge, wondering how best to climb back to safety above. Her Majesty might be a little more favorably inclined towards me right at the moment, but that doesn't mean her pets will be. And words can't express just how much I don't –
Alice blinked, then glanced over her shoulder. "I beg your pardon?"
"About time you did," the Queen said, still tangled in the tentacles of the King. "Dr. Fixxler's Mysterious Elixirs. It's a shop you've passed once or twice."
"I don't remem–"
"You don't have to remember it to have passed it," the Queen cut her off. "You probably circled your precious London twice in your stubbornness to ignore the truth."
"Trust me, London is anything but precious to me," Alice replied, turning around again. "But I'll give you the rest of it. So what about this Dr. Fixxler?"
"You want to cure your king, don't you? Destroy the Dollmaker's taint in him once and for all?"
Alice raised an eyebrow. "I've yet to hear of a potion that cures memory loss."
"You'll never know unless you look," the Queen replied haughtily, nose in the air. "Your own methods aren't meeting with much success."
"Don't you start! He's nowhere near as bad as he once was!"
"Did I say 'no success?'" The Queen slammed a red fist against the arm of her throne. "Pitiful creature, you never listen!"
The King touched her arm. "My darling, please. She's just worried."
The Queen sighed. "Yes, all right. . .just give the place a try," she said to Alice, sinking back down into her seat. "If you're lucky, he'll have a cure. If you're not – maybe you'll get to stab something."
Alice tried very hard not to smile, but her lips twitched upward despite herself. "Win-win by that logic. . .helpful twice in as many visits? You're getting soft, Your Majesty."
The Queen scowled, a blush rising on her pale cheeks. "Last time, I wasn't entirely sure I would survive the Dollmaker's usurpation," she claimed. "I give my aid now to make sure there are no debts between us. The last thing I want is to owe you for the rest of my days."
"Likewise," Alice nodded, letting her gaze drift upward to the dripping mass of meat that made up the ceiling. "God knows I wouldn't want a favor to you hanging over my head." She offered the royal pair a curtsy. "I declare us to be even, Your Majesty. I should never darken your doorstep again." She hit the Queen with a steely look. "Make sure you never darken mine."
"I have better things to do," the Queen replied, sharing a loving glance with the King. She flicked a tentacle. "Now off with you, before I change my mind and have you beheaded."
"Of course." Alice started to turn, then paused and looked back one last time. "Thank you."
". . .Thank you," the Queen reluctantly echoed. "Now wake up already – no need to dilly-dally!"
"Certainly not," Alice agreed. Putting the throne and its occupants behind her, she closed her eyes and concentrated. Once again, the darkness seemed to spin around her –
And then gravity tilted ninety degrees, and the smell of blood in the air became that of smog. Alice blinked a few times, orienting herself. Lying down on her bed, Victor's arm around her, in her room in Houndsditch – with a couple tiny tentacles retreating down a mouse hole in the corner. She let them be and sat up, disentangling herself from her love's grip. He stirred, opening his eyes a crack. "Alice?"
She petted his hair a few times. "Shhh – go back to sleep. I'm just going for a short walk. I've just received some very good advice, and for a change I want to follow it."
Victor chuckled, nuzzling into her fingers. "Okay. Hurry back."
"I will." She stroked his head until she was sure he'd drifted off again, then grabbed her shoes and raked her fingers through her hair before heading for the front door.
Officer Parker was lingering by the gate as she emerged. "Are you on guard duty today, then?" Alice asked, wincing at the way the hinges squealed. Should probably pick up some oil while I'm out too. . . .
Parker gave her a lopsided smile. "I was just in the area. Thought I'd see how things are."
"Please, Constable Parker – I'm not stupid, and I don't think you are either," Alice retorted, folding her arms. "Either, you, Hightopp, or Tarrant has 'just been in the area' for the past five days. I know you're as worried as I am about one of Bumby's other compatriots trying something."
Parker scratched beneath his hat. "We haven't seen anything. . .but yeah, if something happens, we don't want to leave it to you and your knife again." He glanced at her leg. "You and Master Van Dort took quite the licking, from what I hear."
"And gave one too," Alice reminded him. "Not that I don't appreciate extra eyes around the place, mind. I'm not in the mood to get a boot to the ribs again anytime soon."
"Here to protect and serve," Parker replied, snapping off a salute.
Alice smiled. "Thank you. Now, speaking of serving. . .do you know where Dr. Fixxler's Mysterious Elixirs is?"
As it turned out, she'd actually passed the shop while fully conscious. Seeing the large, roughly-carved sign hanging over the door – Dr. Fixxler's Mysterious Elixirs: Uncommon Cures for Uncommon Cases – brought back a memory of coming down this sheltered little street early in her Houndsditch days. She'd been looking for the chemist, and one of the usual gin-scented gutter-lurkers had directed her to Fixxler's door. At the time, she'd shrugged the rickety little store off as an elaborate con – just another of the myriad ways people used and abused each other in the East End. Actual doctors (especially the kind that didn't double as barbers) were few and far between here, and God knew there were enough cruel people in the world who were willing to make fools of the unwary and desperate. Even fresh out of Rutledge, she hadn't considered herself either – or, at least, not enough to try him out.
And then Victor came into my life, and. . .well, I wouldn't say I'm unwary, but I'm definitely desperate, Alice thought, pushing open the door and causing the bell to tinkle. May as well see just how bad a charlatan he is.
Beyond the human skeleton, thorny vine, and shelves of colorful bottles in the front window, the shop was – surprisingly homey. Rather than being draped in eternal shadow, as she'd expected, the main room was bathed in a friendly yellow glow from numerous wall lamps. A little sitting area was the first thing to greet potential customers, furnished with a striped brown couch and matching armchair set before a low table. Silhouettes of young ladies and gentlemen stood sentinel on the wall just behind, staring invisibly out at the world as they posed. There were even a few rugs to tempt weary feet out of their shoes, decorated with intricate Indian designs of looped and knotted flowers. Reminds me of our sitting room at home, Alice thought nostalgically, then grinned at the sideboard. Why, we even have one of Father's Barbary macaques!
The gleaming white skeleton of the little monkey grinned back at her from his glass prison. Beside him was a skeletal human hand, propped up in a wave, and beside that a chunk of spine of indeterminate origin. Macabre for most, but appropriate for an – alchemist? Alice turned around to face the opposite wall, where a counter sat before tiers of shelving, sporting more of those brightly-colored bottles. Dripping candles flickered here and there in strategic spots, providing a bit of extra atmosphere. I suppose, anyway. Who else would have so many potions around? Continuing to scan her surroundings, she came across a large sign tacked up next to the goods on display:
Alice snorted and shook her head. "The things some people will believe. . ." She turned, and found herself looking at a little raised area. Here lived a rather messy bookshelf, and beside that a set of tiny cupboards, labeled in general Oriental Herbs. A few steps next to those led to a curtained doorway. His living space, or the lab where he cooks all this nonsense up? Alice wondered, stepping up and poking the dark red cloth. I guess there's nothing stopping it from being both. . .oh dear. Does the Queen really believe someone like this could help me? Or is she just hoping to annoy me with a wild goose chase?
"Merow. . . ."
Something fuzzy brushed against her ankles. "Oh, hell–" Alice started, looking down.
And froze as she saw a very familiar white face with yellow eyes gazing back up at her. The cat meowed again, bumped its tail against her leg, then trotted down the steps and around to the armchair, seemingly oblivious to her shock. It leapt onto the seat, walked in a circle, licked its flank a few times, then curled up for a nap. Oookay then, Alice thought, staring. I'm going to have to assume the former.
"Welcome, young miss!"
Alice grabbed the railing to stop her falling down the tiny flight of stairs. A figure had appeared before her on the stage, clinging spider-like to the rolling ladder in front of the herb cupboards. He was clothed from head to toe in deep purple, which, combined with his dark skin, made him look like a living shadow. Only the silver stars embroidered on his top hat and his incredibly white teeth gave him away as a real person. "What assistance do you require from Dr. Fixxler, dear lady?" he continued, "v"ing his "w"s and rolling his "rrr"s as if he'd just flown in from deepest Transylvania. "Health? Wealth?" He pushed himself forward, rolling along until they were almost nose to nose. "Love?"
Alice folded her arms, giving him the most unimpressed look she could muster. "If you don't stop with that ridiculous accent, I'm walking right back out that door."
Dr. Fixxler blinked. "Well, you don't have much romance in your soul," he said, frowning as he leaned on his ladder. His voice took on an American drawl. "You'd rather me speak like an Alabamy boy?"
"I'd rather you speak with your own tongue."
Fixxler grinned. "You're in luck, sister – that's this one." He coughed and adopted something more akin to the people she'd grown up with. "However, most people don't take me seriously when I speak like that, so let's try this one. Why are you here, if not to watch me act?"
"A friend of mine is suffering from amnesia," Alice said, watching the doctor carefully for more theatrics. "The usual methods aren't working fast enough for our tastes, so I decided to see if there was anything you could suggest."
"Amnesia. . . ." Fixxler clambered off his ladder and pushed his hat back, scratching his head. "Not typical for this shop. Most people who come in here either want a get-rich-quick charm, a love potion, or someone to look at an embarrassing rash."
"Well, I'm not typical," Alice replied with a hint of pride.
"No, you're not – you're Alice Liddell, aren't you? You're looking much healthier than in that last picture they ran."
"I'd only just left Rutledge in that one – not looking my best was to be expected," Alice replied. "I haven't had time to pose for another. But yes, I'm Alice – and yes, the friend in question is Victor Van Dort."
"Figured it had to be," Dr. Fixxler nodded. "I'm sorry for the both of you. The Illustrated's stories. . .if Bumby had ever graced my shop with his presence and I'd known what kind of a prick he was, you can be sure I would have slipped him some poison. But then, getting a fellow like him in here would have been real magic." He smirked, then sighed. "So – Master Van Dort's still suffering under the good doctor's 'assistance,' hmm?"
"Unfortunately," Alice admitted, rocking on her heels. "We've beaten back most of the other symptoms of Bumby's corruption, but that one persists. He's manage to claw back a few memories here and there, but. . . ."
"But most of it's still empty space," Dr. Fixxler filled in. "Well, it has only been a month – I don't think most amnesiacs are cured in such a short time. Why impatient enough to come to me?"
Because of the suffering in his eyes whenever he looks at the piano or his sketchbook. Because of the pain in his voice whenever he runs head-first into that wall tracking down a memory. Because of the way he slumps whenever he has to confess he doesn't know what I'm talking about. Because he's my Victor and I want him to get better so much it hurts. "Because we previously agreed on Christmas as the deadline for his cure, and I don't want to let him down," Alice decided on, as that was the least sentimental thing she could say to a stranger. "So?"
"It's not something I've ever tried to cure," Fixxler admitted. "Which is a phrase I never thought I'd actually say to a customer. . .but I can do some research." He wandered over to the bookshelf, selecting an ancient tome seemingly at random. "This'll probably take a few minutes at least – you can sit down if you wish. Biscuit?"
"I'm fine." Alice headed for the couch, frowning at the sleeping kitty as she sat. "Is this your cat?"
Fixxler glanced up from his page. "Hmmm? Oh, her. Only in the sense that she knows this is a good place to get a bowl of leftovers and a warm place to sleep," he replied. "She's too independent to be a proper house cat." He rubbed his chin. "I have been meaning to give her a name. Even if she'll never answer to it, she deserves one."
Alice watched the white chest rise and fall. "Guide," she said after a moment.
"I'd call her Guide. I've seen her before, you see," Alice explained. "In the market, at the docks, outside Bow Street. I'd swear she was leading me around."
"Well, I don't know what she gets up to in her spare time, but she is a very intelligent beast. I'm sure she had a good reason for pestering you." He grinned. "Before you ask, though, I'm not going to claim she's my 'familiar' – not to you, anyway. She won't come near my mixing desk, and she wiggles her way out of any charmed collars. Whatever smarts she has she earned on her own."
"Like our Dinah," Alice commented, smiling at the memories bouncing around her mind. "She was the best mouser on our street, and knew just about every trick a cat has for catching birds. Her children were no slouches either. Snowdrop could climb the tree in the back garden all the way to the top, and get down again. And Kitty could unwind a ball of worsted faster than you could blink." She grinned at Fixxler. "She would have been better suited for your shop, too – black, just like her mother."
"I didn't choose the cat, the cat chose me," Fixxler replied, turning a few pages. "Besides, all I have to do to solve that problem is dust a little soot over her."
"And get a faceful of claws for your trouble, I'm sure." Alice leaned on her knee. "I never found out what became of them after the fire. I know they made it outside – I wouldn't have escaped myself if Dinah hadn't taken Snowdrop and Kitty out my window – but after that. . .I hope someone kind adopted them. Like Mr. Carpet a few houses down – Dinah was familiar with him. And even more familiar with his Villikins."
"Seems likely," Fixxler nodded. He ran a finger down some text. "No, not quite. . .I'm sure they were fine."
"Mmm. . .and even if they weren't, at least I know now they ended up in a decent place Below."
"Be – oh, yes. Victor's the one who's seen the afterlife, isn't he? Had that adventure with the corpse bride – Anna?"
"Emily," Alice corrected, frowning. "And I hope you don't mean anything by 'adventure' beyond what generally shows up in the dictionary."
"Well, I've heard any number of stories – he's a spirit medium who was taken over by a ghost, he's a necromancer who raised the dead to terrorize his village, he's crazy and dug up a corpse believing it asked him for help. . . ." Fixxler glanced up. "And yes, that he has 'odd' tastes in women and they caught him in a sepulcher cuddled up to a body."
"All false," Alice snapped, hackles raised. "He accidentally proposed to her while practicing his vows for an arranged marriage, and she popped up out of the ground and took him Downstairs. He only agreed to marry her once he heard his fiancee had wed another – and even then it was only the ceremony. He told me all about it."
"And you believed him?"
". . .Not at the time," Alice reluctantly admitted, lowering her head. "I thought he was like me – that sometimes he sees things that aren't real, but it's hard to remember they're not. But then I ran into his fiancee at the time – thanks to your cat, no less – and she confirmed the story. . .that's another reason to get his memories back. I still need to apologize for calling it false right to his face."
"I imagine he's used to being called a liar by now," Fixxler commented, closing his book.
"That doesn't make it right! Especially with all he's had to suffer regarding those rumors!"
"Well, when you yourself admit you took a corpse to a church with intent to marry it. . . ."
Perhaps it was the little smirk on his face as he said that, reminding her of a more-human, less-kind version of Cheshire. Or perhaps it was the old guilt battering at the back of her head, reminding her that she'd hurt her best friend and love in a hundred different little ways. Perhaps it was the knowledge that if Nell Van Dort ever heard any of those stories, Victor would be punished all over again for things that weren't his fault. Or perhaps it was simply her own frustration with the whole situation overrunning her body. Whatever the reason, Alice stood up sharply, crossing her arms across her chest as her Wonderland blues wrapped around her body like armor. "Are you going to help me or not?"
Fixxler's eyes went wide – almost exactly like Bumby's had a mere month ago in Moorgate. Once again, Alice wondered if somehow the man could see her transformation. Wouldn't that be a trick? I wouldn't have to worry nearly as much about getting new clothes or keeping up with the laundry. . .but I probably shouldn't try to infect others with my madness. The industry of London would grind to a halt if everyone came in to work only to find the doors blocked by mushrooms and giant dice. She gave Dr. Fixxler a steely look. "Staring at me like you've seen a ghost doesn't answer my question."
Fixxler kept staring anyway – then, slowly, his expression turned thoughtful. "Hmm. . . ." He replaced his book on the shelf. "You know – I don't think it should be me that helps him."
After all that? Maybe he's realized there's no way I'm giving him even a half-penny for funny voices and colored water. "Oh? Then who do you recommend?"
Fixxler smiled. "You."
. . .He really was reminding her of Cheshire now. "The whole reason I'm here is because my help isn't good enough. I've been trying, I promise you. We sit together for hours every day, with me talking him down whatever pathways we can find inside his mind."
"But you haven't gone into his head directly?"
Alice blinked, then raised an eyebrow. "It – hadn't occurred to me," she said, because that seemed nicer than, "Have you been sniffing too many of your own potions?" Go inside his head directly? Is he a recent release from Rutledge too?
"Not familiar with that one? It's pretty easy – all you need is to get his permission and then hold his hand tightly while concentrating. Should be old hat for you," Fixxler said brightly, adjusting his own. "I've read the stories about you too, after all. Wandering around 'Wonderland' fighting monsters and demons. Accurate?"
"Well, yes," Alice admitted, twining a lock of hair around her finger as she tried to figure out what Fixxler was on about. Am I supposed to imagine myself inside whatever Victor's Wonderland might look like? How would that help? "But that's my head – I know the terrain, and the monsters too. Victor. . .he'd give me permission in a heartbeat, I'm sure of that, and holding his hand is never a problem, but. . .I have friends as well as foes in Wonderland, and most of them say that I have to let him fight his own battles. He'll never get better if he can't stand on his own two feet."
"That's fair enough," Fixxler admitted. "But there's no reason you can't give him a hand." He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "How does he describe his amnesia? A terrible beast guarding his thoughts? Dark water too deep for him to find the bottom? Just a blank haze where the memories should be?"
Alice shook her head. "A wall," she said softly. "Towering across his mind, thicker than a dock worker's forearm and almost completely impenetrable. And every time he tries to break through. . .well, he hits it, and it hits back. The poor man's getting rather tired of the headaches."
"I see. Well, you're a warrior, aren't you? With weapons for all those monsters and demons? Anything that might work on a wall like that?"
A crack in the wall, and Jack springing from his box, tinkling merrily about weasels before exploding in a burst of cleansing flame. . .piled sheets of metal before a jagged hole, and a mechanical rabbit hopping up and down before them before shattering them with a spray of springs and gears. . .a plug of clear ice blocking the exit from some cold cavern, and a horse's head neighing in triumph as it smashed its way through. . .a web of brittle Ruin stretched across a gap between the rocks, and the scent of fresh tea filling the air as a boiling strainer ball sent shards of the stuff flying. . . . Alice nodded, rocking on her heels. "I do. But how do I–"
Someone tugged on her dress. Alice looked down to see Leader by her side, holding up a purple crayon. Alice grinned, understanding instantly. "Of course. . .I think I know exactly what to do now," she said, turning her smile on Fixxler. "Thank you so much."
"My pleasure," Fixxler said. "Try it when you to go sleep tonight – that'll be the easiest time, I think. Better than falling down unconscious in the middle of the day."
"We already did that earlier," Alice joked, chuckling. "I think you're right – then no one can give us lip for being close either." She fished around in her pocket. "So, ah, how much?"
"Oh, take it gratis," Fixxler said, waving his hand. "I didn't even fire up the condenser. And it was nice to be able to just talk to someone, instead of having to put on a show constantly. Stop by again, won't you? Maybe I'll be able to actually show you something then."
"I think I will," Alice said, grinning. "Right now, though, I have a young man to see. Have a good afternoon!" She gave the cat a quick scratch behind the ears, eliciting a sleepy purr, then hurried back out onto the street. Well, I'm still not sure what he meant by 'go inside his mind directly' – but even if he was just spewing nonsense, at least now I've got a plan. I just hope I have a sharp pencil ready when I get back!
The old church shone in the moonlight.
At least, Victor was pretty sure it was a church. It had all the makings of one – walls of tough gray stone, windows of heavy colored glass, and rows upon rows of old wooden pews lining the central aisle. Victor stood between the first pair, gazing out the open doors at the deep black midnight sky above. He'd never heard of any church that was open at night. . .but standing here, bathed in the silvery glow of the full moon, felt right for some reason. Magical, even. It really does bring out the best in the building, he thought, smiling. Why, I bet if someone walked in right now, they'd practically glow. . . .
A soft clatter behind him made him turn around. There, up a couple of small steps, was the altar, draped in white cloth. Funnily enough, there was no bible, or fancy candles, or anything else particularly churchy on it. Instead, what greeted him as he approached was a long-necked red bottle and a golden goblet. Victor picked up both and examined them. The goblet was plain and smooth – and quite cold, as if it had been sitting in an icebox for an hour or two. The bottle, by contrast, was rough against his fingers – not glass, but some other material, covered in tiny pits – and warm in a strangely ominous way. He turned it around and saw there was no label – just the raised image of a cracked skull on its front. Victor traced the skull's outline, then sloshed the liquid inside, frowning. You only saw skulls on things that were bad for you. . .but why would a church set out poison?
Her bones clacked against the bottle as she raised it. "Your cup will never empty," she said, then paused. Suddenly shy, or just drawing out the moment? Either he could understand. He held the goblet out, a silent encouragement for her to continue.
She smiled and tipped the bottle forward. The liquid, when it splashed into the cup, was as red as blood. Fitting, he supposed, for the potion that would end his breathing life. "For I will be–"
Forget and obey, Thirteen. . . .
Darkness surged up, yanking the memory back into its depths. Victor hissed in pain, then slammed both bottle and cup back onto the altar. "Oh for – I am so sick of this!"
"I imagine anyone would be."
Startled, Victor spun around. Standing at the open doors of the church, indeed aglow in the moonlight, was – well, she had once been a woman. Kind blue eyes peered out over lips as pink as rosebuds, surrounded by a waterfall of long tangled hair that must have been beautiful in its prime. Her garb was that of a new bride – a white dress studded with pearls and sporting quite a long train, and a crown of flowers dangling an equally-long veil. But her left hand was bare of a wedding ring – and of its flesh, all the way up to the shoulder. The same was true of her right leg, what he could see of it. Her ribs poked through a hole in her bodice on the right side, and her teeth peeked out through a tear in her left cheek. What skin remained on her battered body was the same bright blue as her eyes. And yet, she wasn't monstrous. The worst she inspired was a wistful sadness of dreams left unfulfilled. Victor took a step forward. "Emily?"
She smiled, walking up to meet him. "I'm glad I managed to stick in your mind."
Guilt twisted Victor's insides. "Barely," he confessed, rubbing the back of his head. "Alice and Victoria and I have been trying, but – but I'm a-afraid I couldn't tell you how we met, or why you consented to be my wife. You're m-mainly a sudden face on a dark bridge, an angry whisper of 'h-hopscotch,' and butterflies against the moon." He frowned. "I set you free – didn't I?"
"You did," Emily said, laying a bony hand on his shoulder. "But that doesn't mean I can't pay you a visit if you need me. And it looks like you do." She stepped back and twirled, her dress wrapping around her legs. "Do you remember this place?"
"I – I do and I don't," Victor said, staring first at the ceiling, then at the floor. "Everything – it all feels familiar, but I'm damned if I can put a name to it."
"It's Pastor Galswells's church. Back in Burtonsville." She hopped up beside him at the altar and cupped his face in her hands. "You stood right there and recited your vows and for a split-second I was the happiest girl – well, not alive," she corrected herself with a titter. "But you made me feel alive again."
"With this hand, I will lift your sorrows. Your cup will never empty, for I will be your wine. . . ."
Victor scrabbled for a grip on the rest, but the blackness in his head was relentless, and soon tore it away. He sighed, slumping. "I – I'm sorry, I don't–"
"It's all right," Emily whispered. Tears glittered in her eyes before she blinked them back. "You don't remember much at all, do you?"
Victor shook his head, pulling away and walking down the aisle. "Just snatches here and there," he said, letting his fingers trail along the arm of a pew. "I remember – I remember a dog barking as I ran through the woods. I remember wings fluttering against my face as I bent down to smell a flower. I remember Mother fussing with my suit, telling me to stand up straight for the hundredth time. I remember my quill scratching against a sketchbook page. I remember pressing middle C on a great black piano as I tuned it. I remember the shy smile on Victoria's face as she handed me a sprig of winter jasmine. I remember the smell of Lady Everglot's dress burning after I accidentally left a lit candle on it. I remember the coldness of your bones against the back of my head as you leaned over me and asked if I was all right. I remember you dancing around a tree in the moonlight and being amazed at how carefree you were." He stopped and turned back toward her. "I remember telling you I would never marry you, and wanting to rip the words right out of the air immediately afterward. I remember hearing Victoria was marrying another, and swearing that my heart had shattered into a million pieces. I remember I was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for both of you – because I loved you both."
Emily nodded. "And of course you remember loving Alice."
"No." Emily's eyes widened, and he hastened to explain. "I don't remember – I know. It's like – like gravity. I couldn't fight it even if I wanted to. Even without my memories, from the moment I saw her, I knew that I loved her – even if I didn't quite recognize the feeling at the time." He smiled as he pictured her – the thick dark hair that he loved to run his fingers through. . .the sharp green eyes that pierced into his very soul. . .the strong warm arms that held him close when he needed protecting. . .the kind noble heart that beat in perfect time with his own. "Bumby tried to make me hurt her, but – I know, deep inside, I never could. She and I – we belong together. Nobody else could have pulled me out of that dark."
Emily's smile was as bright as the moonlight. "Oh, Victor – I'm so glad!" She ran up to him, throwing her arms around him in a hug. "That's all I wanted when I gave you up – for you to find the love I never got to have. For you to be happy."
Victor returned her embrace. "Thank you, Emily." He stepped back with a deep sigh. "Though I don't think I'm quite at 'happy' yet. Not with not remembering how I fell in love with her. And with you and Victoria, come to think of it." He took her hands, gazing at her hopefully. "I don't suppose you have any ideas on how we can fix this?"
"I just might," Emily said, giving his fingers a quick squeeze. "But we need to see exactly what you're up against first."
Victor tilted his head. "I beg your–"
Something moved in his peripheral vision. Something – oozy. Automatically, he turned to see what it was –
And felt his heart stop beating momentarily. The far wall of the church had changed – the windows had vanished, and the stone was rougher-looking, covered in tiny hairline cracks. Cracks that were leaking a terrible, slithery black gunk that gleamed in the moonlight like – like empty white glasses in the flame of a candle. . .he stood motionless, as if hypnotized all over again, as the wall stretched up before him, getting wider and higher and thicker and stronger every second. . .the ooze sealing up the cracks as the edifice took over the whole of his mind. . . . "Your memories of before are worthless. You need only remember what I've told you. The rest of it can go behind this wall – the widest, highest, thickest, strongest wall you've ever laid eyes on. You haven't a hope of getting through – but then again, you don't actually want to, do you? Of course you don't. The wall separates the useful part of you from the useless. Victor Van Dort can rot and die behind that wall, his needless memories fading into nonexistence. While you, Thirteen. . . ."
Coldness touched his shoulder, and he nearly jumped a mile. "Get away from me!" Oh God, he had to run, he had to hide before the voice found him and blotted out the light –
"It's all right, Victor! It's just me!" Emily took his chin, turning him to look at her. "It's fine. He's not here, I promise."
Victor stared at her a moment, then shook his head, pointing at the wall still leaking its terrible black muck. "Yes he is," he whispered. "He's never not here."
Emily looked at it, biting her lip. "Yes, I suppose he is," she murmured, tears welling up in her eyes. "He really hurt you, didn't he?"
"He – he told me I couldn't remember," Victor replied, a lump in his throat as he watched the steady progress of the slime down the stones. "Told me I didn't have a chance of breaking through. . .I don't know how I've gotten back anything, the wall's so strong. . . ."
"But you're stronger," Emily said, squeezing his shoulder. "If you weren't, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. You've defeated him in so many little ways. You should be proud of yourself."
"I am, but – I want to take him down once and for all!" Victor replied, voice cracking. "I want to know who I am! I want to stop feeling like a stranger in my own life! Yes, I've learned how to argue with him, how to say 'no' to commands – but what good does that do me against a wall?!"
"Nothing – but you can break walls down. And you can break it down," she emphasized, expression serious. "You have to, if you ever want the rest of your memories back."
"But how?!" Victor demanded, fists clenched. "I've already tried hitting it, day after day – it just hits back! I can't punch it into some crates like Jack Splatter or stab it with a drawing quill like Ol' Amos. What if I push too hard and it falls over and crushes me? Or worse, what if – what if I touch it and that – that gunk slithers over my flesh and into my body and just like that I'm i-infected with his w-will all over again. . . ." He spun away, squeezing his eyes closed to hold back the threatening tears. "It's the biggest, t-thickest, most impenetrable wall in the world, and I don't know how to s-stop myself thinking that. I don't have anything that can bring it down."
Silence ruled for a long moment. Then cold breath ghosted along his cheek. "Alice does."
He blinked, then turned to see Emily smiling at him. "She was right before – you have to be the one to remember," she continued, taking him by the shoulders. "So you have to be the one to break the wall. But no one said you couldn't ask for a little help. Alice knows how to fight in dreams – there must be something she can lend you." She touched his chest, face soft. "She loves you dearly, Victor. You couldn't have found a better girl to give your heart to."
"Thank you," Victor said vaguely, trying to process this sudden new idea. Alice knows how to fight in dreams. . .well, of course she does. She's told me about how she had to fight her way through Wonderland. But how is she supposed to give me imaginary weapons? And besides – "I don't even know if she has anything that's good for breaking down a wall, though."
"Well then, you ask her, silly," Emily replied, poking him. "In fact, I think that's her coming back from her walk now – time to wake up!"
The world went topsy-turvy, black and blue and red and gray swirling into each other – then he blinked, and found himself staring at a mass of dingy white. A moment later, his brain registered it was his pillow. He grunted and sat up, rubbing his face. "What an odd dream. . . ."
Alice appeared in the doorway, flushed and bright-eyed. "Ah, good, I was hoping you'd still be here." She darted into the room, fetching her sketchbook from its spot in the cupboard. "I've got a way to help you – to get that blasted wall down once and for all."
Victor blinked, surprised. "You – you do?"
"Well, I hope so, anyway." She grabbed a pencil and came to sit beside him, flipping through the book in search of a clean sheet. "Dr. Fixxler just suggested it to me."
"An alternative medicine man. He runs a shop near here – aha!" Alice pounced on the blank page, pencil blurring into motion. "Here we are. . .the Queen of Hearts suggested I visit him to get some advice on how to cure you. I don't know if he's just a conman or if he actually knows a thing or two, but during our little chat we came up with a rather clever idea."
"And that is?" Victor asked, marveling as her hand zipped to and fro across the paper. I've never seen her this animated! Maybe she stopped off for a coffee before coming back. . .or ten.
"Get something of mine inside your head." The pencil swooped down, forming a long sideways S that terminated in a wide oval. "Specifically, a bit of my armory. After all, I know how to fight in dreams."
Victor's jaw dropped. "You – y-you're going to lend me s-some of your weapons?"
"That's the idea." She glanced up and frowned at his dumbfounded expression. "I know, I know, it sounds a bit mad, but–"
"But I just had a dream suggesting the exact same thing."
The pencil screeched to a halt mid-line. ". . .What?"
"I did! I – I was in a church, and it was night, and – and Emily came," Victor explained, gesturing at the door. "She said she wanted to help me remember. And then we were at the w-wall, and she told me I had to break it down. I said I didn't know how, and she said – she said you did. A-and that I should ask for your help. Because surely you had something to lend me."
Alice stared. "You really. . .bloody hell," she muttered, flipping her pencil round and round in her fingers. "And I thought seeing that cat at Fixxler's was strange. . . ." She bit her lip. "Do you think – it was her? I mean, truly her?"
Victor thought about that tangled hair, those blue eyes, that bright smile. "Maybe," he murmured. "I never – it was the clearest I've ever been able to picture her, at any rate. She said if I really needed her, she could come back. . . ."
"Hmmm. Perhaps she saw Victoria helping and figured she should too," Alice said, erasing the stray line his announcement had caused. "Not that I'm not grateful. If both she and Fixxler think this is a good idea, then it must be so."
"But – how do you get something from your head into mine?" Victor asked, chin on his palm. "It's not like you can just hand it to me."
"I admit, that was a puzzler for a moment. . .but then the Leader of the Insane Children reminded me of an important fact." Alice grinned as she resumed her drawing. "Sometimes, a picture of something can be just real enough."
Victor glanced down at her artwork. It was taking shape now, becoming a – teapot? He was pretty sure most didn't have fangs, though. . . . "You're going to draw me your weapons?"
"Why not? Consider it payment long due for all those pictures you drew me," Alice said, busily sketching away. "And I'm not drawing you the whole set – that would take ages. You're just getting four in particular. The ones that I've used to break down walls."
Victor squinted at the drawing. "You broke down a wall with a teapot?"
"Victor, I've already told you that my main weapon in Wonderland is an oversized carving knife."
"Yes, but that's still a knife. This – did you melt the wall by pouring tea over it?"
Alice's expression turned thoughtful. "You know, I wouldn't put it past Hatter and his 'special blends. . . .' But not quite. Give me a moment."
Victor jiggled a leg impatiently as Alice's pencil scurried all over the page, completing the sketch. Finally, she sat up straight and turned the book around for him to get a better look. "Here we are. The Teapot Cannon – circa Hatter Industries, 1874."
Victor stared. What Alice had drawn was most definitely a teapot – but the fangs in the spout had been joined by sharp horns sprouting from the lid, and it stood upon a set of three little clawed feet, as if it was actually a gargoyle trapped in teapot-shape. There was also a clock in its side, though combined with the more animalistic features, it resembled more of a glaring eye. One got the feeling nothing but the bitterest tea came out of this pot. "Goodness."
"Nasty-looking beastie, isn't it?" Alice said with a proud smile. "It's a shame I don't have any colored pencils so you can get a proper look at it. . .well, I'll do the best I can with words. It's a heavy thing, bright gold, with the clock face in red – fit for Her Majesty of Hearts. And there's a trigger tucked away in here," she added, touching an interior curl on the handle. "Give it a squeeze, and the teapot shakes and hisses, before shooting out a strainer ball of steaming hot tea. And the moment that ball hits something–" Alice mimed an explosion with her hands. "The longer you hold it, the more powerful the blast. Wonderful for clearing out large groups of lesser Ruin – and, more importantly for you, a good way to break a barrier without having to get too close."
Victor lightly traced some of the scrollwork on the pot's surface. "I see. . .it's – it's actually quite pretty. In an odd way."
"Most of my 'toys' are like that," Alice chuckled. Then her face sobered. "Although – you are okay with using this, right? I just – I know you still don't like touching the teapot downstairs–"
Cream and sugar. . .and now under the desk, Thirteen. Put that mouth of yours to good use. Victor's jaw tightened. "Turning that whole disgusting ritual against him? I'm all for it. Whatever you think could help me, Alice. Don't hold back."
Alice nodded seriously. "Then let's move right on to the next one." She carefully freed the Cannon from the binding and picked up her pencil. "Now, I don't know if you had a hobby horse growing up, but I did. Nothing fancy, but I had fun with it. And it made quite the surprising reappearance in Tundraful. . . ."
Victor watched, fascinated, as she formed the toy on the page – two long straight lines for the handle, a big U for the muzzle, curled triangles for the mane. Two slightly larger triangles formed the ears, and then – "You had a hobby unicorn?" he said in disbelief as a long horn appeared atop the horse's head.
"Not growing up – though thinking about it, I bet I would have liked one," Alice grinned, smoothing out the lines and adding in the fine detail. "Maybe I should mention the idea to a toymaker and see if he's willing to split the profits. . .anyway, this was my Horse's final form in Wonderland – and trust me, it was no innocent seeker of virgins. It may be pure white, but the eyes, nostrils, and horn glow a furious gold, as if it were possessed by a demon, and it roars like a lion when you slam it down. Solid ivory too – at least, that's my guess." She finished her sketching. "It's the heaviest of my weapons, but it packs a hell of a wallop. There wasn't a wall in my way that I couldn't smash down with this. Or a Ruin."
Seeing the enraged snarl on the unicorn's face, Victor couldn't help but agree. "I wouldn't want to be on the other end. . .you're sure I'm going to be able to lift all these?" he added, half-joking, half-serious. "You keep describing them as heavy."
"If my weedy arms can manage, yours can too," Alice assured him, patting his shoulder. "Besides, the next two should be much easier to handle. And not as threatening either." She added a final flourish to the unicorn's mane, then tore it out and started on the next weapon. "In fact, this one could be argued as cute."
"Cute?" Victor echoed, as Alice made a large circle in the middle of the paper. As she added a bunch of ovals around it, though, he suddenly realized what it was. "Oh – that's Rabbit, isn't it?"
"A clockwork version of him," Alice confirmed, putting numbers around the curve of the circle. "Clutching an oversized version of his pocketwatch – which, in this case, works as a timer." She added a top hat to the rabbit's head. "You see, this little fellow is actually a bomb."
"A bomb shaped like your Mr. Bunny?"
"Hatter built it," Alice shrugged. "At least, his domain is where I found it. And he and Rabbit get on fairly well usually, what with their shared obsession with Time."
Victor's brow furrowed as something tickled his brain. "But. . .didn't Hatter kill him once?" he asked slowly, pursuing the thought and just barely outracing the dark to catch it. "You said something about – stomping on him?"
Alice blinked, then grinned. "You remember that? See, today isn't a failure after all. And yes, he did, on my first return trip. Rabbit stayed on my side, while Hatter ended up allied to the Queen. Rabbit was naturally reluctantly to resume the acquaintance – until Hatter made him a present of the Deadtime Watch. His joy about being able to ask Time to pause whenever he needed must have overwhelmed all his bad feelings about being crushed. I think they made up faster than he did with his old best friends the March Hare and the Dormouse."
Victor pounced on another stray thought. "You – you also said once Wonderlanders like to do things backwards."
"True, but that's more Looking-Glass Land's quirk. . .on the other hand, Hatter and Hare had jobs as messengers for a while for the White King," Alice murmured. "They could have picked up the habit there, I suppose. Though really, Wonderlanders just seem shockingly forgiving in general. I'm still amazed the Duchess was willing to let bygones be bygones, given our fight ended with her brain literally blown out of her skull."
Victor decided to let the dark have that particular image. "And – and the Queen?"
"Well. . .she'll never call me a friend, but – I think we've come to a truce at last. It helps that I was able to give her company she was sorely missing." She waved a hand and went back to her drawing, giving the bunny bomb a fancy pair of coat tails. "But that's neither here nor there. I'll give you all the details later – right now, we have a mission to accomplish."
"Right," Victor said, nodding. "So how does this Rabbit Bomb work?"
"It's just called the Clockwork Bomb, though 'Rabbit Bomb' would probably be a better name. . .and it's simple – you take it out, put it against whatever you wish to be blown up, and then just step back. It activates all on its own – probably something to do with contact with the ground. You can just let it hop in place for about thirty seconds, or use this remote–" She left the bunny for a moment to sketch out a simple square box with a button "–to force it to detonate earlier. Either way, there's a burst of smoke, a shower of springs and gears, and then voila! Your way is clear!"
Victor nodded. "I see. There must have been a lot of walls blocking your way in Wonderland, if you have no less than three weapons for destroying them."
"Well, admittedly, I ended up using the Clockwork Bomb more for holding down switches temporarily and distracting enemies," Alice confessed, finishing up the seams and rivets on the rabbit's face. "But there were a fair amount of obstacles blocking my path. Scrap metal, ice, wax combs, Ruin webs. . .none of them as thick as the wall you face, but I figure if I give you the lot. . . ."
"It's all appreciated," Victor assured her as she pulled out the sketch. She was right – it was kind of cute. "And the fourth?"
Alice paused. "I always had a bit of an odd relationship with that one," she murmured, tapping her eraser against her lips. "It's one of my older weapons, from when I was going after the Queen. I – I can't deny it was endlessly useful, but. . . ."
Victor bit the inside of his cheek. He wasn't sure he liked the vaguely-haunted look on his love's face. "It's all right, Alice. You don't have to draw it if you don't want to. Those three should be just fine."
Alice shook her head, eyes hardening. "No – I want you to have the best chance possible against this wall," she declared, drawing a box. "And if any of Bumby's little pets come after you while you're chiseling your way through, it might just be your best friend."
"Why is that?"
"Because the Jackbomb comes with two settings." A long zigzag popped out of the top of the square. "The first is just an explosion, same as the Clockwork Bomb. The second–" She stopped and swallowed. "Is a flamethrower."
Victor stared. He didn't need his memories to know how ridiculous that sounded. "A flamethrower. You used a flamethrower."
"I know it sounds – I knew intimately just how dangerous fire was! And I couldn't turn down any weapon, no matter if it did sometimes make me. . . ."
Victor put a hand on her back. "Alice, really–"
"No. I can do this." Alice practically attacked the paper with her pencil, producing a jester's head sporting a devilish grin. "Like I said, it was endlessly useful. I only used it to break open a wall once, but for clearing my way of Army Ants and Card Guards and Jabberspawn? The only other thing like it was the Blunderbuss, and that knocked me on my arse and kept me from using it or anything else until I'd recovered a bit." She glared at the evil little clown. "I may not like fire, but I refuse to be utterly terrified of it anymore. Not if it could help you."
There was no arguing with that determined gleam in her eye. Victor nodded. "All right. So how do I use it?"
A handle appeared on the box. "You crank it, then set it down wherever you need it to be – and preferably get out of the way as fast as you can. It'll play the first bit of 'Pop Goes The Weasel,' then – well, what happens afterward depends on how far you cranked it. Two turns, and it'll explode right after the head pops up. Three, and the jester will spew fire in a circle for a good half a minute before popping." She moved to the top of the paper, drawing a couple of crude stick-figure versions of herself and the toy to demonstrate. "Definitely make sure you've put some distance between yourself and the bomb with the latter mode, though. The Jackbomb is – indiscriminate about who it sets alight."
The image of flames spewing out of the monstrous toy, wrapping around Alice as she screamed, ripped through his imagination. Victor shuddered and dismissed it with a shake of his head. "I'll be careful." His gaze moved from the Jackbomb to the other weapons, piled at his side. "Jackbomb, Clockwork Bomb, Hobby Horse, Teapot Cannon. They're all wonderful, but – do you have any idea how I get them in my head?"
Alice eased the Jackbomb free of the sketchbook and added it to the stack of drawings. "They're in your head now, just from looking. I think if you study them all this afternoon, particularly right before we go to bed, that should fix their images firmly enough in your mind that you'll be able to summon them in your dreams tonight."
That sounded logical enough. . .but. . . . "I don't usually control my dreams, though. Not like you."
"You know what you need to dream about – that's a good start," Alice said, patting his arm. "And if you don't succeed tonight, we'll try again tomorrow."
"And if it doesn't work then?"
"Then we go see Dr. Fixxler and see if he can brew us up something. Or give me better instructions on how to get in there myself," she added, poking his forehead. "If I could hop in any time we held hands, you'd be well already."
Victor decided he'd ask later. He flipped through the stack of drawings, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Is – is it s-silly to say I'm scared? I mean – I know it's j-just a wall – n-not even a real one – but. . . ."
Alice leaned forward, hands on his shoulders. "Victor. It's me, Alice."
He laughed, dropping his head. "Right, right. . .but even in your head, you fought actual monsters and demons. I'm – I'm up against stone."
"Stone built by him. You've every right to be nervous." She smiled. "Besides, my enemies have been made of things like carved ivory, inked Chinese letters, and bolts with wings attached. All of them were right bastards to kill too." She squeezed his shoulders. "But I did it. You can too."
Victor lifted his face to hers again. "Thank you." He pressed their foreheads together. "You're sure you can't join me in there and fight by my side?"
"I'd love to, but – even if Fixxler was describing a real spell instead of just bullshitting me, magic can't be that easy," Alice said regretfully. "And I don't know if Wonderland would let me in any case. Everyone from Cheshire to Caterpillar is pretty firm about you fixing yourself."
Victor sighed. "Right."
Alice drew him into a hug. "I'll be there with you all night, though. Even if I can't join you at the wall. I'll keep you safe from anything in this world. And I have every confidence that, sooner or later, you will bring that wall down."
Victor smiled, leaning his head against hers. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She pulled back. "Now – you've had your nap, so how about a walk? The day's not bad – a little chilly, but fine for a stroll around the neighborhood. I can tell you a few stories, if you like."
"About breaking down walls?" Victor guessed.
"Every little bit helps," Alice grinned. "And besides, we need to tire you out. You can't break down anything if you're staring at the ceiling all night."
"No," Victor agreed. He picked up the sketches and flipped through them again. The Jackbomb, ready to set the world afire. . .the Clockwork Bomb, bouncing playfully in place. . .the Hobby Horse, whinnying (or roaring) rage against all in its path. . .and the Teapot Cannon, hissing steam as it prepared to soak everything before it in boiling hot tea. A most unusual set of armaments. . .but they were Alice's. Which meant they had to be better than just your average rock chisel or hammer. He set them carefully on the side table and stood up. "So you only used the Jackbomb on a wall once?"
"Yes," Alice said, taking his hand and pulling herself to her feet. "It was in the Pale Realm of the chess people – I was passing through one of their towers when I happened to notice a crack in the plaster behind me. . . ."