I thought the point of all that walking was so that I wouldn't be doing this?
Victor sighed, glaring at the ceiling as if it was its fault somehow that he couldn't sleep. Beside him, Alice snoozed away, head leaning against his chest, Mr. Bunny tucked under her arm. He gave her a jealous glance. She'd fallen asleep not ten minutes after they'd retired for the night. He couldn't understand it. They'd both walked all over Whitechapel, Alice leading him through the market and past the pubs and up all sorts of little side streets in an effort to jog his memory. They'd both wrangled the children for supper, chasing down little boys and girls who were reluctant to leave perfectly good games of hopscotch and tag for mere food. They'd both helped clean up afterward, Alice and June scrubbing plates and cups while Victor mopped the floor and wiped down the counters in preparation for breakfast. They'd both spent their evening examining those pictures again, Victor trying to memorize every detail of the weapons while Alice told him more stories of how she'd used them in Wonderland. They'd both crawled between the sheets at the same time, even. Why, then, was he still achingly, annoyingly awake?
Walking into Dr. Wilson's office, only to find it empty. . .hearing the door slam shut behind him. . .struggling desperately with the lock as the curtains yanked themselves closed and all the lights went out. . .and then, feeling cold, clammy hands caressing his shoulders. . ."Hello again, Thirteen. . . ."
Victor shuddered, hugging himself. Right. Because I'm scared of what might happen if I go to sleep. Alice may have mastered the trick of controlling her dreams, but I haven't. What if I simply have another nightmare? Last night was bad enough. And even if I do find myself at the wall. . . .
The plan had sounded so good in the daylight. Facing his monsters head-on, battling with the weapons his love had gifted to him – it had filled him with a hopeful excitement. But now, laying here in the dark, he couldn't help but doubt. What if Alice's drawings weren't enough to allow him to use her "toys?" What if he imagined them wrong, and found himself so badly hampered in his fight he had to flee? What if he couldn't even find the wall, and woke up no better than he was before?
And worst of all – what if he fought with all his might, only to find he simply wasn't good enough?
Let me save you the trouble – you're not, came the voice, slippery as a snake. You never were, you never will be. Everyone knows it except you. Oh, you may think that you've triumphed over me in the past, that you've "improved," but we all know the truth. All those "advances" you say you've made – they're as fragile as tissue paper. They'll rip in the slightest breeze. You know what you were meant for. You know the only thing you're good for. Forget and obey, Thirteen. . . .
Victor slammed his head against the pillow. "Shut. Up," he growled under his breath. "I have gotten better, and you know it. I don't jump to obey an order. I don't lose myself while doing chores."
But you still remember almost nothing, the voice replied. You still jump a mile if someone surprises you from behind. And you still move a little closer to your precious Alice if a bearded or spectacled man passes by you on the street. You've never stopped obeying me, Thirteen. Never stopped fearing me.
Victor swallowed. He was loathe to admit it, but the voice had a point. He had fought his way past most of Bumby's suggestions – but Bumby himself remained in his head, a dark, cold presence ready to leap forward and rip away all his hard-won victories. The psychiatrist had become his personal boogeyman. He shivered as he remembered how those glasses had shone in the candlelight, two endless voids sucking him in; how that voice had roughed away all his thoughts, just like an endless belt of sandpaper; and how those awful, bony fingers had pulled down his trousers and –
You didn't object at the time, the voice purred.
You made me forget how! Victor shouted back, ignoring the trail of wetness on his cheek. You made me just sit there and take it even as inside I screamed for you to stop!
Nonsense – there wasn't a you to scream, the voice retorted.
No? Then why did I break a plate the first time I heard Alice's name after what you did? Why did I blink in confusion when Jack Splatter mentioned a corpse bride and I suddenly thought "Emily?" Why did it take me a minute to tell you I'd forgotten Victoria, because the name itched at my brain? He gritted his teeth. And why was I able to punch you when you tried to get me to kill the woman I love above all others?
Because you're a bad boy, the voice snarled. And bad boys get punished. Do you want to go back into the dark?
A rush of sheer animal terror almost overwhelmed Victor. That he remembered clearly – pure, unassailable blackness surrounding him, choking him, crushing him. . .an invisible chorus laughing and jeering at his misery. . .monsters licking their chops as they circled him, closing in for the kill. . .and of course the voice, assuring him that no one cared, that they'd all be glad to see him go. . . . His fingers dug into the mattress as the faint light through the window seemed to dim even further. No no no he couldn't go back there he couldn't he couldn't –
"Mmmmmm. . . ."
He wasn't. Victor's breathing slowed as Alice nuzzled his side. Mistress is here, he reminded himself, wrapping his arm around her. Mistress will protect you. Mistress won't leave you lost in the dark. You're safe.
You're pathetic, is what you are, the voice told him, disgusted. Always relying on someone else to save you. So she's still Mistress, hmm? Still looking to be owned?
Better her than you, Victor shot back. I call her that because I want to.
Keep telling yourself that. Stupid, infuriating tease. . .you know who you really belong to.
I do – and it's me. Victor's jaw clenched, blood running hot in his veins. I am so sick of you never keeping still. Sick of you trying to run my life from beyond the grave. You are dead. You are dead, and I deserve to be free. I'm going to that wall and I'm tearing it down!
The voice fell silent, retreating in the wake of his righteous fury. Victor grinned, glad to have gotten one over on the bastard –
Then realized that the surge of emotion had left him feeling even more awake than before. He groaned and sat up, rubbing his eyes. Ugh. . .there must be something I'm missing. Is it really just a matter of staring at the ceiling long enough?
Alice squirmed, then rolled over, letting her left arm have a bit of air. Victor watched her settle in, then brushed away a few locks of hair that had fallen over her face. She looks so peaceful tonight, he thought, leaning on his hand. I'm glad one of us is. I wonder where she is right now. Having tea with her friends in Hatter's Domain? Talking with Rabbit in the Vale of Tears? Chasing down Imps in the Land of Fire and Brimstone? He ran his fingers along her cheek. I hope she's somewhere nice. She fights so much and so hard, both awake and sleeping. . .she deserves a quiet night.
He fixed the covers over her, then lay back down, watching her chest rise and fall. She loves me. This beautiful, imaginative, wonderful woman loves me, he thought, the last of his rage draining away in favor of amazement and joy. How did I ever get to be so lucky?
No answer – not that he was expecting one. There was another reason to get his memories back – so he could spend the rest of his life cherishing every single moment he'd spent with this incredible lady. "I so wish I knew how we met," he murmured to her. "Or why you think so well of me. My own parents don't love me the way you do." He bit his lip. "Will – will you still love me if I never get better? If I'm never again the Victor you once knew?"
Alice shifted again, causing the light to fall across her face just in time to illuminate a smile. Victor smiled back. Pure coincidence, no doubt, but – he still felt reassured. "Thank you."
Alice murmured something unintelligible, pulling Mr. Bunny closer to her chest. Victor gave the toy a pat, then went back to watching her face. The more he looked at her, the better he felt. Better. . .calmer. . .sleepier. He yawned and resettled himself against the pillow. She was certainly much nicer to stare at than the ceiling. . .maybe he could just lie here and watch her forever. . .his eyelids fluttered, fell shut for a moment –
And when he opened them, he was back at the wall.
He jerked backward in surprise, stumbling away from the gray stone and wretched goop in front of him. There was no sign of the church this time – just the wall, looming over an empty field of dead grass, under a sky so dull blue it almost matched the stone in shade. Victor grimaced as he turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. This – this is my mind? Really? Alice always describes her Wonderland in such bright colors. . .then again, even at her worst, she never lost all of herself. He swallowed. I really hope this isn't the landscape I have to look forward to. . . .
He turned to face the wall again. The accursed thing seemed to have gotten higher since the last time he'd seen it. And it was still oozing that horrible black muck, seeping and slipping over the stone to pile at the base. . . . Ruin. That's what Alice called it. It's an appropriate name. Victor squared his shoulders and set his jaw. All right. Time to show this bastard what you're made of. Alice had to kill horrible beasts that spat fire and ice at her. Surely you can conquer a simple wall! He stepped forward –
And the wall grew another few feet, stone creaking and grumbling as it stretched into the clouds, towering over his head like the fabled Everest. The Ruin hissed as it slithered out, dropping onto the ground in ugly black tears and burning away what little foliage remained. Look at you, it said. Look at how small you are compared to me. Look at how weak, how vulnerable, how insignificant. You think you can get past me? You haven't a hope. This is the widest, highest, thickest, strongest wall in the world. You know you can't break it down. You know you can never fight me. More Ruin splattered onto the earth. Turn around. Walk away. Do as you are told. Forget the past and future. You exist purely for and at the pleasure of others. You are worthless. You are nothing. You will not triumph. Don't even try. For if you fail. . . . The blackness bulged through the cracks, and a few slimy tendrils reached out for him. You know what waits.
Victor scrambled backwards, falling into a crab-like crawl in his desperation to get away. Oh God, the darkness didn't have monsters in it – it was the monster. And it wanted him, to swallow him whole, rip him to pieces, dissolve him into nothing. . . . He clutched at the grass, breath coming in terrified, shuddering gasps. Maybe if he ran now, some tiny part of him would survive to see Alice again –
No! You're stronger than this!
Victor's head jerked up. His beloved was nowhere to be seen, but her voice echoed through the sky, as if she was perched on some cloud (or card?) on high. You know it, and he knows it! she continued. Who was it that punched Jack Splatter and made him Whitechapel's fool? Who was it that dared the burning Mermaid for the sake of the madwoman inside? Who was it who walked the length and breadth of the most rotten neighborhoods in London and not only made it through almost entirely unscathed, but became a local legend? Who was it who made Bumby work harder than he ever had before to break a victim? And who punished him in the end with a split lip for his efforts? He says those things because he fears you, Victor. Prove his fears right!
Silly, psychotic bitch, the wall snarled, Ruin pulsing. Me, fear this waste of humanity? They should have locked you away for the rest of your life. Is that really the path you want to walk, my dear Thirteen? Would you rather be mad than useful?
Victor's eyes narrowed. "Better mad than of use to you," he growled, shoving himself back to his feet. "I don't care what you say. This wall's coming down."
Oh? And how do you propose to tackle this problem? the voice mocked. Stab it with a fork?
"No," Victor replied, voice cold. "I've a better idea. It's tea time, Master." He shut his eyes tightly and pictured the sketch of the Teapot Cannon he'd studied so hard. Clawed feet, fanged spout, horns on the lid, a clock face on the side that glowers like an eye, gold and red and – "Ooof!"
And it was heavy – Victor staggered a bit under the weight. He caught his balance and looked down. The Cannon gleamed back at him, as real and solid as the one that lived in the Houndsditch kitchen. The scaled metal was warm against his hands, and jets of sweet-smelling steam flitted out from under the lid. He ran his fingers along the curve of the spout, marveling at its construction. It's a lot prettier in color. . .now where did Alice say that trigger was? He fumbled briefly with the handle, trying to locate the hidden switch –
Pssss-chock! A brown ball burst from the mouth of the beast, flying high and true toward the center of the wall. It landed on a particularly thick stream of Ruin and exploded into a spray of green. The black muck sizzled under the resultant puddle, and Victor could swear it cried out in pain. He beamed. First blood – such as it was – was his!
Oh, please. That didn't even leave a dent.
Victor's eyebrows lowered to a dangerous line. "The next one will," he promised, and slammed his finger down on the trigger.
The Cannon rattled and shook in his grip, whistling dangerously as the pressure built. Victor kept his finger firmly pressed against the handle. The longer you hold it, the more powerful the blast. . .well, I want to make this whole wall shake from end to end, he thought, adjusting his grip on the spout. Something that'll show this bully he can't order me around any–
The back of the Teapot slammed into his chest, and Victor found himself sprawled on the grass with his ribs aching. The Cannon lay atop him, boiling hot and still hissing softly at its ill treatment. He pushed it to the side and scanned the sky for his projectile. Where is it? Did – did I actually manage to clear the top?
A loud whistle, and then something smashed into the wall, blasting green everywhere. The entire edifice shuddered under the force, stone shattering as the Ruin squealed. . . .and then. . . .
Snap! "With this candle, I will light your way in darkness!" he proclaimed, using the tip of the twig to "light" another on the old log. Oh, if only he'd had this confidence in the rehearsal! No matter – so long as he could pull it off again tomorrow in the church, everything would be just fine. He yanked out the ring with a flourish, imagining Victoria's bright smile before the altar. "With this ring – I ask you to be mine!" he finished grandly, dropping to his knee before the hand-shaped root he'd spotted before and slipping it smoothly onto its finger.
For just a moment, the world was filled with a curious stillness, as if the very earth was holding its breath over something. Then a chilly breeze stirred his hair, and suddenly Victor was aware of what felt like dozens of little eyes upon him. He glanced up into the trees –
And found himself surrounded by ravens, more than any he'd ever seen before in his life. They watched him curiously, cawing and croaking softly to one another. Victor stared back, puzzled. Ravens weren't an uncommon sight in the forest, but the sheer quantity was very uncommon indeed. What had drawn their interest to him? The ring couldn't be bright enough to catch their attention, and he was pretty certain he didn't look like a choice piece of carrion –
Something cold grabbed his wrist.
And then the dull blue sky returned, sweeping away the tall trees without leaving a mark. Victor touched his wrist, staring at his hand as if he'd never seen it before. Even without the rest of the memory, he had an instinct for how that particular bit of his life had ended. "Emily. . . ."
That's right, Emily's voice said in his head, giggling. Good job, Victor! Go get him!
That was all the encouragement he needed. Victor scrambled back to his feet, grabbing the Cannon and charging up another shot. His ribs complained about the sudden movement, but he ignored them. What was a little pain compared to getting his mind back?
Even so, he released the trigger just a bit earlier this time, stumbling as the Cannon rocked from the force of the blast. The strainer ball crashed through another stream of Ruin, soaking the battered rocks underneath –
"Take. Your Hands. Off Her."
Barkis regarded him with a tired sneer, turning his stolen sword away from Victoria's throat, so that the point came to rest against Victor's belly. "Do I have to kill you too?"
Victor almost laughed. As if death held any fear for him anymore! He'd been prepared to end his life for the sake of a woman's happiness just moments before – what made Barkis think he wouldn't do so again? Granted, he wasn't exactly keen on dying – certainly not with Victoria's lip quivering like that before him, her pupils terrified pinpricks in her wide eyes (I seriously thought she'd thrown me over for this monster?) – but if that was the price he had to pay to stop her ending up a crumpled heap under an oak tree like poor Emily –
Something went crunch down at foot level, and suddenly Barkis was screaming and flailing his leg. Victor saw a flash of white as what looked like a skeletal dog went flying into a pew. The lord's grip on Victoria's arm loosened, and she promptly took the opportunity to dart for freedom, running to Emily's welcoming embrace. Victor would have followed, but Barkis had already recovered and the sword was aimed right at his chest – "Ow!"
And suddenly pain was racing up his leg as he was thrust back into the field. Victor jerked his head down to see a mobile chunk of the Ruin attached to his trousers, apparently trying to climb up him. "Get off!" he shrieked, kicking wildly to dislodge it.
The Ruin held on tightly, like a stubborn leech. Victor aimed the Cannon at it and flicked the trigger. The green tea burned as it splashed his face and hands, but it did the job – the Ruin literally popped under the blow. There you are, Victor, Victoria encouraged him. Don't let that cruel, unfeeling beast get away with such behavior!
"I don't intend to!" Victor cried, looking right and left. Other bits of Ruin were pulling away from the main pile now, forming an army of long black blobs inching their way toward him. Victor sent another strainer ball into the center of the group – most of them burst, squealing, as it exploded, but a few on the edges dodged the blow and continued their slow progress forward. And more were already coming, birthed endlessly from the streams pouring through the rocks. . . . I can't just keep shooting them, I'll be here forever! I need a distraction – distraction. Rabbit, rabbit, who's got the – Rabbit!
Victor glanced down as the metal in his hands warped, spout and handle twisting into bent red arms, horns lengthening into oversized white ears, feet retracting into two little bouncy legs and a tiny round tail. Victor tossed the Clockwork Bomb directly in front of the Ruins and hurried back a few paces. The blob army closed in curiously around the hopping mechanical toy. One raised up on its tail like a snake, then let out a "scree!" and made a leap for the top hat –
BANG! Springs and gears flew through the air, and both rabbit and Ruins were no more. Victor promptly tossed down another Bomb, before refocusing his attention on the wall. Another heavy pssss-chunk! from the Teapot Cannon, another explosion of green, and the edifice was definitely looking the worse for wear now. The cracks and chips spread across the stone like a gigantic –
– spiderweb, and in the middle – he'd never seen a spider so big in his life! "Wooooww," Victor whispered, amazed. "I bet you don't get spiders like this even in the Amazon!" He very lightly touched a few silken strands, sending the spider scurrying toward his finger. "Hello, Mr. Spider! Or Mrs. Spider? How do you tell each other apart?"
The spider didn't reply, instead poking at his hand with its front legs. Victor turned it over, offering his palm to the arachnid. "Come on – would you like to see my house? It's even bigger than yours!"
The spider hesitated briefly, then crawled into his hand. Victor giggled as the tiny hairs on its body ticked his skin. "You're fuzzy. . .maybe we'll find some flies for you in the scullery?" He turned toward the door, figuring it couldn't be that far to the kitchens from here –
Victor screamed as a slimy black glob launched itself directly at his face. An automatic squeeze of the Cannon's trigger did away with the monster, but a second Ruin leaped onto his shoulder, somehow searing his skin right through his clothes. Victor slammed the Cannon against it, bursting it like an old boil, then looked down. Sure enough, he was surrounded by the wretched things. What happened to my – right, they only last thirty seconds, he thought, stomping on the Ruin nearest before dropping a replacement Clockwork Bomb right at his feet. Another Ruin attempted to latch onto it, and in another flash of flying metal, the area around him was clear. Not very convenient. Maybe if I drop more than one – He took off running, throwing Bombs behind him in a rather crooked line. The Ruins tried to keep up, but between his own long strides and the regular explosions taking care of those who made it anywhere near him, they were soon forced to fall back. Much better! But if I don't do something about the source, then I'll probably be stuck like that again. . . . He chose a pile of muck at random, then flung a Bomb into it, following up with a blast of tea for good measure. The goop shrieked and writhed, boiling away under the heat, as steam rose up in delicate wisps from the cooling puddle, almost like – wings. . . .
"Victor, I'm a bit – oh, look at that," William said, raising his head despite himself as Victor pushed the jar toward him. "Where'd you find it?"
"It was flying around the honeysuckle in the back garden," Victor reported, admiring the gray- and brown-splotched butterfly as it fluttered around and around its glass prison. "I caught it before it could get away."
"Well, good for you," William said with a little smile. "Thinking of making a bug box then?"
Victor tilted his head. "A bug box?"
"You know – something to show it in so you can keep it forever and ever."
He could keep this wonderful creature forever? Never have to let it go? Victor's eyes lit up. "Sure! Will any box do?"
"Well, it has to be big enough to stretch the wings out. . .we'll have to ask Millie if she has any pins we can take too."
"Pins?" Victor echoed, puzzled.
"Yes, of course!" William chuckled. "You don't think it's going to stay in there all on its own, do you?"
Cold horror filled Victor from toes to scalp. "You – you mean I have to kill it?!"
Yes – much like how I'm going to kill you if you don't learn to behave!
The injured Ruin pile reared up, forming the shape of two monstrous and familiar hands. Victor's blood turned to ice. "Oh no. . . ." He swung the Cannon around, firing as quickly as he dared. One hand jerked back under the onslaught of tea, melting back into an inanimate puddle – but the other dodged his shots, skittering toward him on its long fingers, trailing thick strands of goop behind it. Victor aimed and flicked the trigger again –
Only for the Cannon to shudder, going pthut weakly as steam trailed from its spout. What – this thing can overheat?! How does that work with an imaginary –
The hand seized his legs. Victor shrieked and tried to kick free, but the black, dripping fingers held on tight. One hard yank, and he was sprawled out on the ground, the Cannon tumbling from his grip as he was pulled inexorably toward the growing heap of Ruin. "No! No no no!" he cried, clinging to the ground and digging deep furrows in the dirt. "Please, no!"
The hand was merciless, dragging him onward. And now its twin was reforming itself, fingers lengthening and reaching toward his head. . . . Can't go back in the dark can't go back but the Cannon isn't working and the Bomb won't be nearly powerful enough need something else need – need – He slammed his eyes closed as the hand crept upward, covering his arse possessively while the other touched his shoulder. Don't think about it don't think about it just concentrate on the picture remember the picture? Remember the picture and it all goes away – right, yes, just a box and a spring and an angry little face. . .and three cranks. Got it? Now – one – two – three!
Victor opened his eyes and twisted as much as he could, throwing the box into the middle of the looming Ruin. There was a muffled, slurred rendition of the opening notes of "Pop Goes the Weasel" –
And then, flame consumed the pile, jetting from the mouth of a triumphant Jack in a two-foot-long stream. The Ruin howled, the hands flailing uselessly as they were set alight. Victor watched with cruel delight as they finally fell apart. "Best friend in a fight indeed, Alice," he whispered, getting back to his feet and wiping off his trousers. "Oh, that was – AHHHH!"
He dropped and rolled left wildly as his body became a mass of crackling red and yellow. Fortunately it didn't take much to extinguish the new fire. He lay on his back as the Jackbomb finally exploded, his skin seared as if by the worst sunburn, a little Ruin still clinging to his clothes. "All right. . .what was the name of that stuff Alice uses to heal herself again? Meta-essence?"
Slurrrp-crack-crunnnchhh. . . .
Victor sat up. The wall was pumping out Ruin even faster now, the vile stuff pouring from every crack and crevice. . .and as it did, he could see the dents he'd blown into the stone slowly puffing back out, pressed back into place and sealed up by fresh gallons of gunk. And as they did, the butterfly's wings and the spider's web and Barkis's face and Emily's hand got dimmer and dimmer. . . .
He sprang to his feet, fingers already curling around the shaft of the Hobby Horse. "Those are mine!" he roared, running at the rock, heedless of the slithering Ruins which tried to leap at him. "I won them back fair and square! You do not get to take them again!" Raising the snarling unicorn high, he slammed it straight into the middle of the nearest healing dent.
Ruin spurted out like fresh pus from a boil as the stone caved back inward. Victor wiped the slime off his face and swung again. The rock fractured still further under the point of the glowing horn, chips of stone raining down like gritty snow. Another Ruined hand made a grab for his arm, but Victor tossed a Jackbomb (this time cranked only twice – he'd learned his lesson) and it retreated wreathed in flames. Victor threw a Clockwork Bomb behind him to dismiss the gathering little Ruins, then bashed the Horse a third time into the widening hole. A lion's roar filled his ears as more stone fell – or was it. . . .
The puppy wiggled in his father's arms, tail thudding against his chest. "I found him outside the cannery!" William explained with a bright smile. "Nosing around looking for a few scraps. Thought the poor thing seemed awfully lonely and cold." He knelt down before his son, holding out the little dog. "What do you think, Victor? Should we keep him?"
Victor eyed the brown-and-white ball of fur cautiously. The puppy looked friendly enough. . .but so did the Tannens' dog Snouty, and Gordon liked to make him chase Victor all around the square. And then there was Mr. Oakerton's Ripper, the biggest, meanest dog in the whole village. He growled at everybody, and had once yanked his leash right out of his owner's hand lunging at him (only William hastily scooping up his son and booking it down the road had saved him from a bite). What if this dog was like that? Victor really didn't want something that was all sharp teeth and snarls living in the same house as him –
The puppy barked again, then stretched out its head and licked his chin. Victor laughed as he wiped away the wetness. Well, that certainly hadn't felt like the pup was testing how good he tasted. And Ripper never wagged his tail that much (or at all). Maybe it really was as friendly as it looked. And it would be nice to have a dog of his own, to chase Snouty and Gordon around for a change. . .besides, he couldn't make the poor thing live outside the cannery. That place smelled. "Yes. Let's keep him," he said, wrapping his arms around his new friend. "And we can call him–"
"Scraps. . . ."
Victor stared at nothing, heedless for a moment of the heavy ivory in his hands, or the glooping Ruin still oozing around him. Scraps. His first and best friend. The dog who'd spent years by his side providing the companionship he'd never been able to find with the other village children. Who'd greeted him joyously upon his arrival in the Land of the Dead, despite being so rotted Victor hadn't even recognized him at first. Who'd been loyal even past the end, biting Barkis so that his master would have a chance to fight for his loves. Who was probably still patiently waiting for the day they'd be truly reunited. Victor sniffled and wiped the tears from his eyes. "I never meant to forget you, boy. . . ."
The wall crackled, repairing itself with frightening speed. Victor promptly smashed the hole open again, teeth gritted in rage. No more, he thought, driving the head of the Horse deeper and deeper and deeper into the stone. No more. You took everything I loved, everyone I cherished, away from me. You stole my life for your own twisted pleasure. Now I'm taking it back. Every last memory, every last hope and dream and thought. And you will not STOP ME!
The wall shuddered, trying hard but unable to resist the relentless pounding of the Horse. Now the gray loomed up on either side of him, like two boulders ready to slam together. Tendrils of Ruin flowed past him, snatching desperately at his arms and legs. One wrapped around the Hobby Horse and pulled – Victor slammed his foot against the base and snapped it in twain. Another tore his jacket sleeve, just like the brambles on the edge of the wood – did even the plant life not want him to escape this nightmare? A quick "pop!" from a Clockwork Bomb drove it back. A puddle of the wretched slop covered his feet and started crawling up his legs – Victor dropped a Jackbomb cranked to full and stepped clear of the flame once enough had been burned away by Jack's favorite game. And still he kept hammering his way inside, deeper and deeper, forming a tunnel through the endless stone. His arms were aching and his skin was blistered and his ribs whined with every breath – but he would not stop. Because with every hit –
The great black beast now lived in their parlor, white teeth gleaming. Victor scrambled up onto the bench, eager to tame it and make it sing –
The "RRIIIIPPPPP!" seemed to echo throughout the ballroom. "Oh! I'm so–" he started, only to be cut off by a slap that seemed just as loud –
"It's all final, Victor! You're going to be married!" The bottom dropped out of his stomach in shock – he was going to be what?!
No answer. Just silence and emptiness all around him. Victor returned to the top of the stairs, where his parents were taking in the scene with wide eyes. ". . .they're gone."
No, what held his attention most was her eyes. He'd never seen such brilliant green eyes in all his life. Most of the population of Burtonsville had various shades of brown or blue. Rarely someone would have a soft dark hazel. These eyes – they were bright, and they were sharp. Victor almost felt like she was looking straight into his soul –
And then, suddenly, the Hobby Horse swung with a surprised whinny through open air.
Victor stumbled, blinking, as he was jolted back into the present. Before him, concealed within the thick stone, was a small open chamber, just wide enough that if he stretched out his arms, he'd be able to touch the walls on either side. And hanging right in the center, pulsing to some terrible beat –
was a gelatinous black mockery of a human heart. It twitched in the center of a web of Ruined arteries and veins, pumping fresh gallons of the stuff into the rocks. The excess oozed over the muscle and dripped onto the floor, forming a viscous puddle just beneath it. Victor gaped, utterly disgusted. So that's why it can speak to me, he thought. I didn't actually think it was. . .ugh. His grip tightened on the Horse's handle. All right then. Just one good smack should do it –
A pair of clammy, bony hands abruptly clamped onto his shoulders, forcing him to his knees. The Ruin saw its chance and swelled up around him like a tide, gluing him to the ground. A thick tentacle wrapped around the Horse and tore it from his grasp, breaking it in half. Victor pulled out a Jackbomb and started to crank – only for another tentacle to clamp the lid closed and yank it away. He tossed a Clockwork Bomb – and the ooze opened up and devoured it, sucking it deep into its belly. The resultant explosion barely caused a ripple on its surface. He grabbed the Cannon from the ether and hit the trigger – just in time to see the Ruin clog its spout, forcing him him to toss it away before it burst in his hands. Damn it! Now what do I do? Think, Victor, think! What other weapons has she mentioned? He shut his eyes and concentrated. There's – there's – the – the Ice Wand? Yes, that'd do, if I can't burn it I'll freeze it –
Slimy fingers grabbed his chin and forced his face up. Without thinking, Victor opened his eyes –
And found himself staring into two blank white discs.
His scream was strangled by a Ruined hand clapping itself over his mouth. Did you really think you could win? Master asked as the wall crunched back into place behind him. Pathetic, delusional wreck. . .you are mine. You will always be mine.
The darkness closed in, deeper than ever thanks to the Ruin painting the stone. Victor squirmed and thrashed, but the grip of the hands was inescapable. It doesn't matter how hard you fight. It doesn't matter how much you struggle. In the end, you always lose. In the end, you always fail. Because that's what you are. A failure. A loser. A bad boy.
No, no, he wasn't, he wasn't – but it was so hard to think when those glasses were the only thing he could see. . . . I will not tolerate such disobedience anymore, Master snarled, looming large over him. You know what you are. You know what you're good for. You know you don't deserve a name. You know you don't deserve a past. Forget and obey, Thirteen. . . .
Remember! You've got to r-remember! But the dark was sucking at his skin, sucking at his mind, tearing away everything he'd found again. . .his dog – what was his dog's name? Had he even had a dog? The dead bride – where had he found a dead person who could walk? His – his arranged – he couldn't even come up with the word anymore, much less her face or name. . .more and more fell into the black, leaving him scrabbling at the edge of a great cliff, his fingers digging into the last of the crumbling dirt as the abyss of mindless obedience beckoned. . .my name is Victor, he thought, desperate to at least hold onto that. My name is Victor my name is Victor my name is Victor –
Give up, Master whispered, voice poisonously sweet. You're hopeless – useless. You only exist for my pleasure. Accept that, and all the pain stops.
My name is Victor, my name is Victor, my n-name is – V-Victor – Oh God, it was getting harder, if only he could look away, think of something else. . .but his mind was empty now, a void of black nothing. Nothing except his first name –
And the most brilliant green eyes he'd ever seen in his life.
His breath caught in his throat. Those eyes. . .the pull of the glasses was nothing compared to them. They burned straight through all the suggestions, all the mantras, all the abuse Bumby had fed into his head. Those eyes. . .those were Mist – No. Not Mistress.
His jaw tightened. There was very little he could recall about that name now – but he knew those eyes. He knew that, even when she'd allowed him to belong to her, she'd always encouraged him to believe he truly belonged to himself. He knew she'd cheered him on in the fight against Bumby, helping him clean out all those awful words that infected his brain. He knew she'd stayed by his side during the bad moments, bolstering him up with love as wide and deep as the sea. And he knew she'd told him she believed in him. That she knew he could save himself. Are you going to let her down?
Are you going to let you down?
Anger blossomed like a thick red rose within him, spreading its thorns through his flesh. And on its heels came one other memory, borne along on the scent of the last time he'd been so furious he could barely see straight. . . . "Victor! Catch!"
His fingers wrapped around the handle of the fork almost on instinct. Slowly, he rose back to his feet. The Ruin resisted him every inch, slimy fingers digging into his flesh, but was ultimately helpless against his will. The heart gave a startled jerk, glasses flashing. What – what are you doing? Stop that!
One foot, then the other, was pulled free of the muck. Victor stepped forward, eyes still locked on the blank white discs – but now it was him staring Bumby down, instead of the other way around. Stop this immediately! Back on your knees, cocksucker!
Another step, and the terrible heart was directly in front of him. It pulsed and shuddered, arteries and veins throbbing. You will forget! You will obey! it shouted, sounding now like a petulant child.
"Never," Victor hissed, his weapon gleaming in the reflected light of the glasses. Three hits before he got one on me. . . . "Never. Ever. Again."
The heart twisted. Always! Forever! Forget and obey! Bad boy, Thirteen!
And the last vestige of his self-control snapped. "MY! NAME! IS! VICTOR!"
The fork plunged straight into the heart, going through the meat like a hot knife through butter. The Ruined organ shrieked, writhed, swelled –
BOOOOOOM! And Victor stood in the heart of an avalanche, tons upon tons of rock and Ruin flying apart and tumbling away around him. The air filled with the screeches of the dying horrors and the crumbling of the stone as dust swirled around his stock-still form. There was a final long wail as the tattered remains of the heart fell down, down, down. . . .
And then it was over. Nothing remained but him, the field, and the sun. Victor stayed where he was for a moment, ascertaining that the danger had indeed passed.
Then he let himself fall to his hands and knees. The fork thudded against the earth as he sucked in air, terror taking its delayed payment. Oh God oh God oh God I can't believe I did that can't believe I actually made it through. . . . He swiped at his eyes, tears dripping down his cheeks. His entire body trembled and ached, and he felt like he'd never slept a day in his life. It was taking everything he had to stay anywhere near upright. Even the warmth of the sun on his back felt like a heavy weight, driving him down to the grass –
The green grass.
Victor stared, trying to process this turn of events with a brain that felt like he'd run it through a washing machine. When had the grass turned green? Only moments ago it had been brown. . .and now that he was thinking about it, he was pretty sure the sun hadn't been this warm before either. . .had the wall been blocking it? That made sense, it had been very tall –
A shadow fell across him, and he yelped and rolled over, jerking his head up. Instead of the expected spectacled figure, however, the branches of a tall pine greeted him, waving in a friendly breeze. As he watched, more grew up beside it, bursting from the earth and spreading their needles toward the sun. Tiny white flowers popped up in the newly-dappled light, soaking up what life-giving rays they could, and mushrooms displayed their caps proudly over a fallen log. One long, winding section of earth dropped into a deep furrow, and clear, sparkling water rushed down it, filling the air with gentle splashing. And then there was a delicate fluttering of wings, as bright blue butterflies emerged from the shade to flit around him in a delighted dance. Victor watched them fly past in faraway amazement. He didn't remember this place – didn't even know if it was real. But everything about it whispered home.
A few butterflies came together, disappearing behind a nearby tree – and from the other side emerged a figure seemingly made of mist. A bride, with a long veil and a skeletal arm. She clapped and bounced on her heels as she saw him. You won! You won! Oh, Victor, I'm so proud of you!
That was wonderful, another voice agreed – Victor turned his head to see a second mist-woman, this one sporting a bun and a long ruffled skirt, picking her way along the bank of the river. You did so well. That fork and you were made for each other.
Victor chuckled dreamily. "Yes," he agreed, picking it up and admiring it. The long tines shone in the bright spot of sunlight. "It – it must be vorpal."
Vorpal. . .suddenly he remembered the eyes again, and who was attached to them. "Alice?" He tried to stand, but his legs failed him, and dropped him back onto his knees. The two women each caught an arm and pulled him upward – encouraged by the appearance by a fog-born dog, who ran around their ankles yapping excitedly. "Thank you, good boy. . .Alice?"
More ghostly figures, pouring from some unseen fountain, gathered around him in a huge crowd. An old, plump lady in a tall chef's hat waved to him. That was amazing! You're sure you don't have a dead brother?
About time, another, even fatter woman complained, fanning herself like she had some sort of personal complaint against the air. Always lollygagging, Victor! He's had that problem since he was a boy, she added to the tall woman with even taller hair standing beside her. Never stops daydreaming!
I've no doubt, the other woman replied with a sneer. You don't expect anything less from fish merchants.
Hey, stop rainin' on his parade, a skeleton sporting a bowler-hat scolded them, before tipping said hat at Victor. Hell of a show, Van Dort. If you don't write a song about it, I will.
"Thanks," Victor said without really thinking, scanning the faces for the one he wanted to see above all others. There's so many of them. . .surely she has to be here somewhere. "Alice?" he called again, voice growing louder as the old familiar worry set in. "Where are you? Alice?!"
He blinked – and just like that, there she was, lying in a puddle of moonlight, looking up at him with those gorgeous green eyes. "I'm right here," she reassured him, stroking his hair. "Go back to sleep."
Sleep. . .yes, that sounded like an excellent idea. He was exhausted right down to his bones. He managed to get a limp arm around her side, pressing his cheek against her hair. "I love you," she whispered into his ear as his eyelids sank.
In his mind, the figures started walking out of the woods, slowly filling with color as they prepared to resume their usual places. Victor smiled and fluttered his fingers against Alice's back in a wave, before snuggling up even tighter against her. "I love you too," he mumbled back.
Then his eyes closed, and he knew no more.