March 8th, 18–
You are a fool, Lord Barkis Richard Bittern! A fool who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, nor when to keep out of sight!
Barkis took the corner as fast as he could, wishing his mind would stop berating him so he could focus all his efforts on running. He’d thought he had a chance of slipping out of Secundus undetected after two days of steady pursuit, but then he’d had to go and bungle things by succumbing to the urge for a coffee. But really, didn’t those policemen have anything better to do than sit around eating donuts? he thought bitterly, zig-zagging his way around an inconvenient fruit cart.
The worst part was, he knew his current predicament was all his fault. If he hadn’t lost his head in that bastard Fabri-Auto-that bastard thing’s hat shop, he might have been able to at least quietly extricate himself from the Everglots and slip away into the night. Nobody would have been able to truly prove anything about his role in Emily’s murder. But no, that idiot Van Dort and his psychopath of a girlfriend had gotten him all riled up, and before he knew it he was practically confessing to a crime he’d thought long in the past. This is more embarrassing than when you let Martha escape, he scolded himself. At least then you had the sense to immediately get out of the country. What took you so long to try and get out of Secundus? You knew these people wouldn’t stop looking for you!
Truthfully, though, he knew what was keeping him here. He wanted revenge. He wanted to do something absolutely horrible to that worthless blight on the earth Van Dort. If that idiot hadn’t gotten him so angry (him and that knife-wielding lunatic, who had let her out among – oh, wait, there were no normal people here, never mind), things wouldn’t have turned out so badly for him. Hell, if the boy had just spoken up about his association with the Everglots and had mentioned they were broke when they first met, he wouldn’t even be here! He would have immediately left to go seek out a new victim! It’s all your fault this happened to me! And I’m not going to rest until I’ve made your life thoroughly miserable!
Not that he could rest anyway, what with the police still hot on his heels. Why did they have to be so interested in arresting him for a murder that had happened – goodness, he didn’t even remember how long ago. Had Emily been the second or the third? No, no, Lucy had come before her. . .well, the point was, it had been ages, and she wasn’t even properly dead anymore! Surely her being up and about meant they couldn’t prosecute him? Then again, who knows what the legal system is like in a place like this, he thought with a shudder. I might find myself wishing I’d taken that hat-wearing mongrel’s suggestion and gotten myself blown up. He thought about the expression on Richard’s face when he’d seen him last. Then again, maybe not. Damn it, there must be somewhere to hide in this blasted city. . .
As if in answer to his prayers, the huge mass of greenery that was Wonderland Park loomed up before him. Barkis grinned. Perfect! He’d heard that the place was bigger on the inside than the outside – and that it contained multiple spots where a person could get lost. He couldn’t go in through the front gate, of course – but if he managed to get out of the sight of the policemen for just long enough to climb the fence, he could probably find a hole or something to burrow into for a bit. Then, once they’d finally lost interest, he could make a proper escape under the cover of darkness. And best of all, he thought with an evil smile, I’m almost positive the owner is a friend of Van Dort’s, so if I can do him an injury. . .won’t be as nice as revenging myself directly on that ninny, but it’ll have to do. He poured on the speed.
He slipped around the corner just ahead of the police, and immediately turned and hoisted himself up over the fence. He dropped down as lightly as possible and promptly hid in a nearby bush. Moments later, the policemen dashed past, going too fast to notice anything unusual in the bushes. Barkis still waited until they were out of sight to breathe a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s that settled, at least,” he muttered. “Now to find a place to hole up til evening. . . .”
He crept quietly through the undergrowth, searching for some comfortable spot. It wasn’t easy – there were quite a lot of creeping or thorny plants impeding his progress, and he constantly had to stop as he heard noises nearby. He didn’t think any of them came from people, but in this blasted place you couldn’t trust the animals not to talk. I will be so glad to return to a city where things act according to the laws of nature, he thought, kicking a nearby mound of dirt to relieve his feelings.
Moments later he was on the run from a nest of wasps he’d disturbed – wasps that apparently not only had stingers, but tiny swords, arrows, and sharp spear-like weapons as well. Haven’t I suffered enough?!
A house appeared before him as he crashed through the undergrowth. Heedless of who might be living in there, Barkis rushed through the door and slammed it shut behind him. A few wasps managed to slip in after him, but now that they were no longer part of a large and dangerous swarm, Barkis found it easy to swat and crush them. He stomped on their bodies afterwards purely out of spite. “What sort of idiot makes wasps that are even more dangerous than normal?” he grumbled, carefully pulling a few minuscule arrows out of his flesh.
He looked around. The door he’d run through opened up onto a large foyer, with bookshelves and a few comfy-looking chairs and sofas. There was a staircase at the far end, leading up to the second floor landing, and a number of doors leading who knew where. It seemed a pleasant enough home, though Barkis couldn’t work out why the front of the house apparently faced one of the back areas of the park. . . .
Oh, wait – don’t they call this place Looking-Glass House? The damn thing must be mirrored, and there’s another “front foyer” facing the path from the gate, he realized. This must be where that damnable Lewis Carroll lives. I’d like to have a very long and productive talk with him about his Inventions. . . . Later, though. No sense in getting the police back on me just yet. Right now, it’s time to find a room he doesn’t use often and – and. . .
And damn me, what is that smell?
Barkis made a face as he sniffed the air. It was a nasty stench – reminded him a bit of rotting meat. What on earth is he working on that requires him to have that about? he thought, making a circuit of the room. Perhaps it’s feeding time for some monstrosity I have yet to meet. Ugh. . .hopefully going upstairs will get me the farthest away–
One of the doors abruptly burst open, and something was on Barkis before he could get away. Barkis looked up as claw-like hands fastened on his body and screamed as a skull with three eye holes looked back at him. “What in God’s name are you?!” he yelled, trying to yank himself free of the thing’s grip.
The thing just growled at him and started dragging him away through the door through which it had come. Barkis continued trying to get away for a moment, then gave up the endeavor as useless. I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to be eaten by a I don’t even know what and it’s probably going to use my skin to replace its face dear Lord what did I do to deserve this?!
Well – if he was going to die, he was at least going to figure out what his murderer actually was. He looked again at the creature which held him so cruelly. Its body was oblong-shaped and curiously flat, with its arms and legs set at the corners. It wore a poorly-stitched white outfit with a black number seven embroidered on the left corner, and its skull-head was covered with a black cowl. Looking up at the face again, Barkis realized that it didn’t actually have three eyes. Rather, someone had carved the symbol for Clubs into the bone, using the eye sockets for two of the leaves and the nose holes for the stem. Looking down, he saw the same symbol carved into the creature’s clothes and flesh, leaving a hole one could look through. All in all, the thing resembled a – a –
A giant playing card? Barkis thought, now utterly baffled. I’m being dragged off to my doom by a living – well, that’s too strong; Reanimated – playing card? This was the arguably the strangest situation he’d ever been in. Though at least it gave him just a little hope – he wasn’t sure if the damn thing could eat now. Maybe, just maybe, he could still get out of this with his life. And, preferably, all his limbs.
As he was dragged along, the stench that he had noticed before became stronger. For a moment, he was baffled as to why. The card holding him, though clearly undead, didn’t really smell all that much. And then he looked around him again, and saw that, as they proceeded down the hallway, the walls were either covered with or replaced by –
Rotting flesh. Rotting, veiny, disgustingly pink flesh. And the same was happening to the ceiling and floors. Soon it was like he was being pulled down into some grotesque extension of someone’s body. Barkis shuddered and closed his eyes. Maybe getting out of this with all his limbs was too great a hope.
After far too much time squelching and squishing their way along disturbingly soft floors, they apparently reached where they were going. The card creature let out a howl that raised the hairs on the back of Barkis’s neck. Great, this is where it calls the rest of the pack – oh God, just what I wanted to do, die with a terrible pun in mind – and then I get ripped to pieces. . . .
“Now – who is this?”
Barkis’s eyes snapped open from the sheer surprise at hearing what appeared to be a female human voice in this horror. He instantly wished they hadn’t. The room to where he had been brought was the worst yet. Every surface was absolutely covered in that horrid pink flesh, and in this room, it was actually moving. The pillars writhed like worms, the walls appeared to have a heartbeat, and – were those crawling tongues on the floor?! On second thought, he really didn’t want to know.
Back at the far end of the room was the only thing that looked even partially inorganic – a massive red metal throne, set into the flesh and decorated with silvery-black card symbols. And in that throne was something even worse than any of the other horrors. It had a vaguely human shape – at least, the upper half did. It had human hands, at any rate, one clutching a heavy, dangerous-looking heart-topped scepter. And it wore a dress – a rather expensive-looking and elaborate one with red and purple stripes, and a white ruffled collar. (Though Barkis couldn’t help but notice that the black wrists of the sleeves and a ring just belong the collar were set with vicious spikes.) But the rest of it. . .Barkis wasn’t sure what was more horrific, the “feet” or the face. For the “feet” were nothing more than a gigantic mass of writhing pink tentacles, stretching out into the room and looking to merge with the walls and floor at points. It was like looking at an octopus or squid gone very, very wrong. But the face – it was a terrible white mask of a face, with a clear seam running down the middle. Two terrible pink eyes peered out at him from deep sockets, and the mouth was twisted into a permanently open smile. The red hair above it was pulled neatly back, and two horn-like tentacles served for a headdress. That was like looking at a harlequin gone very, very bad. Whoever or whatever this was, she was the ultimate expression of science gone haywire.
The card monster roared again. The – woman? Barkis couldn’t think of a better word for her – sighed. “Yes, I know you want to eat him, but let’s see if he can be useful first. If not. . .” She chuckled coldly. “Off with his head.” She leaned forward, and one slimy tentacle slithered toward him, lifting his chin. “What’s your name?”
Barkis struggled to reply, repulsed by the tentacle’s touch. “Answer the Queen of Hearts, or off with your head!” the woman-thing cried.
“B-Barkis,” he finally got out. He swallowed, and forced himself to turn on the charm. Much as he hated being in this creature’s presence, he still hated the thought of death worse. “Lord Barkis Bittern, Your Majesty.”
“Lord Bittern, hmm? Lord of what?”
“Not much,” Barkis admitted. “Of myself, I suppose.”
“Hmph. And what brings you down my way?”
“Because – I’d lost my own way?”
To his surprise and relief, the Queen laughed at his desperate little jest. “Ahh. I’m surprised you even thought you had a way here. All ways are my ways in Wonderland Park.”
“I wasn’t aware of that, begging your pardon,” Barkis said, pouring on the politeness. “I’m afraid I was on the run from the police at the time, and climbing over the fence into your land was my only way out.”
“Oh, the police,” the Queen said dismissively. “Nasty creatures. I’ll behead the lot once I’m in control of this city. My Card Guard will do quite nicely for keeping law and order, don’t you agree?”
Barkis glanced back at the thing still holding him. “Of course,” he said. It wasn’t really a lie – if they’d had creatures like this in charge of the police back in the day, he probably would have never dared to break the law. “But – and please, forgive my terrible impertinence for asking such a question – I thought – well – someone else owned this park. . . ?” Please don’t kill me please don’t kill me please don’t kill me. . . .
“You mean that despicable Lewis Carroll? He’s gone! Ousted! Off with his head-ed!” the Queen cried, raising her scepter and smashing it down. “He dared tried to keep me from my true destiny! And he’s just the first! All who stand in my way shall perish! I am the Queen of Hearts, and I shall rule everything! It is my royal right!”
Barkis nodded rapidly against her tentacle. “You can be assured I have no intention in standing in any of your ways.”
“Then you’re smarter than most,” the Queen said. Barkis got the feeling he should be honored – she didn’t seem the sort to give out praise lightly. “Smarter than many who live in the park, in fact. Most of the creatures here seem to resent my new rule. No matter. I’ll replace them with my chosen pets soon enough.” She waved her scepter. “And all shall bow before me! All shall love me and despair! And all shall cheer as I destroy that pretender to my throne Alice!”
“Alice?” Barkis couldn’t help repeating.
“The one he claimed was my inspiration! How insulting! That girl is pitiful – she must be, if he loved her! Weak! Worthless! A stain on this city! Even her last name shows just how much she matters – Little!”
Barkis blinked. “Little – Liddell, you mean?”
“I mean what I say, and I say what I mean,” the Queen replied, voice dangerous. “Do you do the same?”
“It’s just – I think I know the girl you’re speaking about,” Barkis said quickly, aware he was skirting the line between life and death.
“You do? How?”
“She and her boyfriend caused me no small amount of embarrassment and shame,” Barkis replied, feeling the anger surging up in him again. “She threatened me, can you believe that? She and that Van Dort boy are the whole reason I’m on the run from the police! For a crime that barely even matters!”
“Is that so? She dares to threaten someone under my rule? And she dares to have a paramour while I remain kingless?!” The Queen pounded her throne with her scepter again. “She will pay for her insolence! Her and this Van Dort!” She suddenly pointed at him. “And you will assist me in this matter!”
“I will?” Barkis said, more than a little surprised.
“Yes! You claim to despise them as much as I do, don’t you?”
Barkis thought about it for a moment. “Pretty damn close, I’d say – pardon my language, Your Majesty,” he nodded, frowning deeply. “I’d love a chance to exact my revenge.”
“Perfect! Then you and I--”
A loud pounding came from another part of the house. “Lewis! Open up! We think a dangerous criminal’s invaded your house!” a voice called.
“We know you’re in there, Barkis!” another voice added. “Come out peacefully and maybe we can get this over with without any fuss!”
The Queen looked in the direction of the voices. “Those who were chasing you?” she asked rather blandly.
“Yes,” Barkis said. “Um – I don’t suppose you--”
“But of course.” The Queen trust two tentacles into the ground. Moments later, Barkis heard an explosion, a pair of screams, and a wet crushing noise. The Queen turned back to face him with her permanent smile. “They’ll never trouble you again. In fact, I can guarantee that the police as a whole will never trouble you again. Nor will you have to endure any more embarrassment from the Liddell girl and her painfully deluded sweetheart. I’ll give you the latter to play with yourself, in fact – after I’m done with him, of course. And even a fiefdom of your own once I’ve conquered enough land. You needn’t be lord of just yourself anymore.” She leaned forward. “All you have to do to join is swear fealty to me and only me.”
Barkis stared at her for a moment. Then, slowly a smile curved his lips, and he pulled away enough from the Card Guard to bow down low. “It is a honor to serve you, my Queen,” he said.
Finally – things were going right.