March 16th, 18–
Victor stood alone in the darkness, looking left and right. Blackness stretched out in all directions. Normally, this would have unnerved him at least a little – he hated absolute darkness – but he felt oddly calm. There was nothing to fear here, he knew that. And it was important that he be here. He was – waiting. For what, he wasn’t sure, but he sensed he’d know when he saw it. He rocked slightly on his heels, composing a new piece of music in his head as he stood patiently.
And then, out of nowhere, there was a flash of light. He turned to see a familiar glowing butterfly, fluttering mere inches away from him. He gasped with delight – they had never come so close before! Normally they were always just out of his reach. . . . He watched it for a moment, as it flitted through the air, leaving glowing streaks hanging in the blackness –
No. Not streaks, Victor realized. Words. And numbers. He leaned forward. It was – formulae. Recipes for chemical and biological concoctions. And notes about butterflies, notes he had written, he remembered scribbling them down. . .the rest of it was just beyond his grasp, but only just, and he had the feeling that all he needed was the slightest push to understand them –
More butterflies joined the first now, a whole rabble of them, all glowing and glittering against the perfect inky blackness surrounding them. Victor stared at them, amazed. It was all so beautiful, so – so wonderful. . .he had to catch one. This time, he had to catch one. He located the original among the rest, then carefully – oh so carefully – reached out his hands and cupped them around it. He felt its wings lightly brush his fingers, and –
And suddenly the entire WORLD glowed, bright as the heart of a star – and he felt the knowledge flow into his head, burning even brighter, filling him with its perfect light – he knew EVERYTHING he could do ANYTHING –
And then he woke up.
Victor stared at the ceiling above him, wondering if it would be appropriate to start the day off by screaming in frustration. No, no, no! I was so close! I had it in my hands, and I finally understood – He searched his mind desperately, trying to find the knowledge that his dream had provided.
Nothing. He felt just the same as he had yesterday. No dazzling flashes of insight, no sudden epiphanies, nothing. He was just as he had always been. He groaned and sat up. “Not fair,” he mumbled to himself.
“What’s not fair?”
Victor looked up, startled. “Marty? What are you doing up?”
“It’s nine o’clock,” Marty said, lingering in the doorway of the sitting room. “Doc let you sleep in a little. Which means you shouldn’t be waking up this grumpy.”
Victor blushed. “I’m sorry, I – I just finally caught one of those butterflies,” he explained, getting to his feet.
“One of the glowy ones?”
“Yes. And right when I’d figured it all out – I woke up!” Victor threw his hands in the air. “It’s not right! It’s like my own mind is taunting me!”
“Yeah, that does sound frustrating,” Marty admitted. “But hey – now that you’ve finally caught one, maybe the dreams will stop?”
“But I don’t want them to stop!” Victor cried. Couldn’t Marty understand? He’d come within a hair’s breath of finally understanding it all! Of finally getting an answer to the question that had plagued him ever since the dreams had first started! It didn’t matter that he’d caught one – he hadn’t gotten a chance to study it, to learn from it, to – to have the secrets of the universe laid bare before him, his for the knowing, and then to use them, to twist them to his whim and –
Marty dashed into the room as he clutched at his head. “Victor! Shit, again?”
Victor nodded, breathing hard. “S-sorry,” he whispered, trying to sit as still as possible as the pain slowly faded. “I didn’t--”
“Victor, you don’t have to apologize for a goddamn headache!” Marty sat beside him, frowning. “What’s got me and Doc worried is that you keep having them. Don’t you think it’s time to see the doctor?”
“T-they never last very long,” Victor protested weakly. “And they only c-come on when I’m feeling particularly f-frustrated. . . .”
“Which is happening a lot more often now,” Marty pointed out. “And judging by the way you scream every time one hits you, I’m guessing they hurt like hell.”
“That would be my hypothesis as well,” Doc agreed, appearing in the doorway. “I heard you downstairs in the shop, Victor. You really have to get these checked out.”
“I don’t t-think – I don’t w-want to be a bother,” Victor said, now embarrassed. “They may hurt, but I’m always f-fine a moment or two later!”
“Victor, it could be a sign of a serious neurological condition! You might be on the verge of a stroke, or something worse! I don’t want you suffering like this under my care!”
“Are you scared of going to the doctor?” Marty asked. “It’s okay if you are. But there’s plenty of non-Touched medical guys. You don’t have to be worried.”
“It’s not – all right, p-perhaps it is that, a bit,” Victor admitted, blushing. “I know I shouldn’t be s-scared, not after knowing so many kind Touched, but. . . .”
“But having one actively fiddle around with your health is something else?” Doc nodded. “Understandable. I’m not sure even I’d want to visit a Touched physician, just in case they got the urge to experiment while I was there. You have my word I’d take you to a Regular doctor.”
“I know. My main w-worry is what would happen if my p-parents got wind of it. If they could s-successfully claim this place is making me sick. . . .” He leaned over, staring at his shoes. “I don’t want to go back,” he mumbled. “I love it here, and – and by God, if only they understood that--”
“Don’t trigger another episode,” Doc said soothingly, patting his back. “One day, they’ll have to get the message. It’s been a month or so since they arrived, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine them wanting to stay much longer.”
“Maybe not, but if my mother thinks there’s the slightest chance of getting me to change my mind. . . .” He sighed. “And poor Victoria. . .she managed to wrangle a brief visit to the hat shop the other day, and she said that her father has just about enough for the ticket back, and that he and my father are arguing terribly. . .she keeps doing her best to delay them, but she told us that she fears it soon won’t be enough. . . .”
“Well, you can’t do anything about it right now,” Doc said. “You’ve got to look after your own health first. Come on, get dressed and we’ll have some breakfast. Maybe food will make you feel better.”
“Hey, Victor, I just had a thought.”
“Why don’t you ask Lewis to actually make some glowing butterflies for you?” Marty said, playing with the register. “Maybe if you get a chance to catch one in real life, it’ll help.”
Victor considered that as he continued sorting through the nut bin. “I suppose I could,” he allowed. “But there seems to be something important about catching them in the dream. Though you’ve reminded me that we haven’t seen Lewis for a while. He’s closed up Wonderland Park too.”
“Oh, must be time to recalibrate all the weather and time systems he’s got working in there,” Marty said casually. “It’s delicate work – especially if he gets distracted by another project in the meantime. Didn’t he say the last time we saw him that he had something major going on?”
“Yes, he did,” Victor nodded. He suddenly grinned. “Maybe he’s adding something new to the park!”
“Yeah, maybe! He always has plans to expand it. And I remember him talking about adding an underwater town a while back, made out of bits of old ships, for fish people. . .Barrelbottom, I think?”
“It sounds amazing,” Victor said cheerfully. “I do hope that’s what he’s working on – I’d absolutely love to see it.”
“Yeah, me too.”
The door swung open, allowing in Doc carrying a couple of bags. “All right, boys, I’ve got lunch,” he announced. “We’ve got lasagne soup--”
“Lasagne what?” Victor repeated, looking up.
“It’s really good,” Marty assured him.
“Yes, I think you’ll enjoy it immensely. And I stopped by Wonka’s and picked up--”
The bags nearly dropped from Doc’s hands. Victor jumped, upsetting the bin and scattering three-quarters’ nuts everywhere. “What on earth was that?!”
“Did Madblood or Wallace blow something up again?” Marty added, rubbing the place where the register drawer had hit him.
Doc set the bags down and turned back to the door. His jaw dropped. “Great Scott. . . .”
“What? What is it?” Marty and Victor hurried to join him at the door.
What they saw caused their jaws to drop as well. Sticking out of the middle of the street was a writhing red-pink tentacle. Victor had seen plenty of strange and baffling things during his short stay in Secundus, but this was new. “What – where did it--”
“There’s more of them!” Marty yelled! “Look at the sky!”
They did. Sure enough, more of the strange tentacles were extended up against the grey clouds blanketing the city. Some were waving aimlessly, others plunging down into other streets. Victor felt a sense of revulsion on seeing them. Something about them just screamed wrong.
“Who the hell is doing this?” Doc said, pushing open the door and heading outside for a better look. Marty and Victor joined him. All across the street, others were doing the same. The air was filled with chatter as people looked between the tentacle squirming in the road and the others extending from who knew where. “Does anyone know who’s responsible for this?” Doc called.
“Not a clue!” a young lady called back. Victor recognized her as one of the Berk dragon riders, the one he’d seen at the Roofless with her boyfriend. Astrid, if he remembered correctly.
“Whoever it is, they’re going to be in an awful lot of trouble for wrecking the road,” another person, this one a man Victor didn’t know, said. “The Mayor’s getting very annoyed about that after Foot caused so much trouble.”
“You think this is Madblood again?” a third voice asked.
“Nah, he never works in biology – strictly a tech guy,” Marty replied. “Maybe Narbon, she’s big into pink. . . .”
“Helen’s been working strictly with gerbils for a few months now,” a nattily-dressed black man said. “Granted, this might be a tentacled gerbil, but I haven’t seen--”
“ATTENTION CITIZENS OF SECUNDUS!”
All heads snapped up to the sky. “SURRENDER YOUR CITY AND YOUR LIVES TO ME IMMEDIATELY!” the voice continued. It was clearly female, but strangely distorted – now sounding like a full-grown woman, now sounding like a petulant child. What wasn’t distorted was the clear tones of cruelty and malice inherent in the words. “THIS IS NOW MY REALM, AND YOU ARE ALL MY SUBJECTS! DISSENTERS WILL BE BEHEADED!” The tentacle swung around in a wide arc to emphasize the point, causing people to duck. “SWEAR FEALTY NOW, AND BE SPARED! YOU WILL ALL BOW DOWN TO THE QUEEN OF HEARTS!”
Everyone gaped as the tentacle slammed into the ground, then withdrew. For a long moment, there was a dead silence.
Marty was the first to recover. “Oh, no way,” he whispered, eyes narrowing and fists clenching. “No way in hell. This place is neutral ground!”
The street exploded into motion, as if triggered by that statement. Everyone started running in various directions – some back to their houses, others to the cross streets, where they disappeared. Doc turned to Marty. “Time to grab my rifle, I think.”
“Too bad you never actually built the Terminator, Doc,” Marty said. “I think that might come in handy right about now.”
“We technically don’t know how much of a threat this ‘Queen’ is,” Doc replied. “I think the rifle will be sufficient for now. Come on, Victor, it’s probably best not to linger out here.”
Victor stayed where he was. He couldn’t help himself – he felt like he’d been rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on those awful tentacles. They were absolutely the most disgusting things he’d ever laid eyes on. Where on earth were they coming from? He tried to follow them with his eyes, making quick estimations in his head about distance and angle–
And then it hit him, and his blood ran ice cold. “No. . .oh NO!”
Before he could even think about what he was doing, he was racing down the street. “Victor!” he heard Doc call after him, voice shocked. “What in the name of Sir Isaac H. Newton do you think you’re doing?!”
“It’s Wonderland Park!” Victor yelled back, glancing over his shoulder. “They’re coming from Wonderland Park! I’ve got to help!”
Doc yelled something else, but Victor didn’t hear him. All his attention was focused on getting to the park as fast as he could. He wasn’t really sure what he was going to do when he got there, but he knew he couldn’t let his friends suffer there alone. He turned the corner, paused a moment to correct a near-stumble –
And came face to face with a leering skull.
He screamed and jumped backward, eyes wide. The thing standing in front of him – was that a Card – no, it couldn’t be. For one thing, Card Guards tended to have more flesh on them. He gaped in horror at the twisted monstrosity of a card person standing before him. “Oh God,” he whispered, “what did the Queen do to you?”
The warped card didn’t seem up for conversation. It screamed and clawed at him. Victor dodged it and tried to continue running, only to have to backpedal as a Jabberspawn came leaping out of a nearby window. It turned toward him, head vents steaming as it snapped its toothy jaws. No! I can’t die here, I can’t! he thought frantically. I’ve got to–
The Jabberspawn fell to the ground, abruptly lacking a head. Victor spun to see a female figure, dressed as a maid, standing on a three-eyed, horned, fanged monster. “Yeah! Hunting season has opened!” the girl cried with what sounded like delight, reloading her gun. “Time to show these creatures what-for! Onward, Caliban! Before the Liddell girl gets all the good ones!”
“If this is all this Queen has to throw at us, throwing her over is going to be easy,” the monster commented, jogging down the street and knocking over the zombie card with one swipe of his claws. “Why, in the demonic pits where I was created--”
“Save the monologue for later, Caliban. There’s stuff to kill. Ooooh, and I’ve still got these bombs to try!”
Victor had about five seconds to stare after the young lady and her monster. Then he had to leap out of the way as a huge herd of giant gerbils came thundering past. Riding on the ones in the front were a blond woman Victor recognized as Helen Narbon, her scruffy-looking assistant David Davenport, and the black man from earlier. “Whee!” Helen cried, holding onto her hat with one hand and pointing with her umbrella with the other. “To arms, my good gentlemen! Artie, you’re sure you don’t want to join in in your natural form?”
“Helen, I’m a sixteenth of the size of these creatures, and naturally herbivorous,” the black man said, clinging desperately to the neck of his gerbil. “What help could I be as a gerbil?”
“You could annoy the enemy to death by constantly predicting what they’re going to say before they say it,” Davenport said, a pipe clenched between his teeth.
“You still hold a grudge over that?”
“Argue later! There’s a Queen to overthrow right now!” Helen snapped at them.
“You’re sure this isn’t your mother?”
“David Davenport, I promise that if you get killed again, I’ll bring you back.”
The gerbils thundered on, leaving Victor to gape after them. After a moment, however, he collected his wits and followed them. He was still determined to get to Wonderland Park, despite the danger. And that maid had gotten him wondering where Alice was, and how she was doing in all this madness. He knew she could take care of herself – and very effectively, at that – but that couldn’t stop him from worrying. Please, God, he thought as he ran, make sure all my friends get through this safely. I don’t – I can’t – please.
The streets of the city were soon thrown into utter chaos. Everywhere Victor looked, there were monsters – more of the zombified (he couldn’t bring himself to call them Reanimated) Card Guards, Jabberspawn, a new sort of Snark that had the face and teeth of an angler and the apparent ability to breathe air (just what they needed! Victor thought angrily, just barely dodging one as it tried to leap on him), gigantic literal Army Ants led by a terrifyingly toothy Centipede, strange ghost-like creatures that screamed so loudly you were knocked back by the sheer force of the sound – even the plant life wasn’t safe, as Victor discovered when he had to duck beneath a spray of thorns sent by an oversized rose that had grown outside a building. It was like every evil idea ever had by a scientist about the creatures of Wonderland Park had suddenly come to life.
Unfortunately for the monsters, everywhere they looked, there were angry Touched, Igors, Reanimated, Fabricated, Automatons – even some Regular citizens who joined the fight with conventional weaponry. The Queen’s announcement had boiled everyone’s blood – this was their city, and they surrendered it to no outside force. “NEUTRAL GROUND!” seemed to be the rallying cry of the day, as evil, good, and neutral alike teamed up to destroy the threat.
A loud pounding noise caught the young man’s attention as he raced on – he turned to see Madblood’s Foot leaping along the street, crushing whatever was in his path. “FOOT STOMP!”
“Yee-ha!” a young woman cried from the top. “Bring ‘em down, Foot!”
“Be careful with him!” Madblood cried as he arrived on the scene, leading what appeared to be an army of clockwork versions of himself. “And don’t let him wander off!”
“FOOT BE GOOD! FOOT LOVE ZETA!”
“We’ll be fine, Dr. Madblood!” the woman cried. “We’ve got this under control!”
“I hope so!” Madblood pulled out some sort of odd box and hit a button. Light streamed out of it, forming a blurry image of a dark-haired woman. “Are we ready to fight, Lovelace?”
“Ready sir!” the light-woman said, saluting.
“Then let’s go! Onward, my beautiful clockwork army! Show these renegades the might of the might Dr. Wolf Madblood!”
“You’re still on about the ‘Wolf’ thing?” Lovelace commented.
“Later, Lovelace! Lead my glorious Automatons in their song!”
Lovelace rolled her eyes and started whistling. The clockwork Madbloods began to march, chanting, “From the West to the East, from the greatest to the least, ev’ry creature, man and beast, bow beeefoooore him--”
“Excuse me! Pardon me! Coming through!”
A motorcycle zipped through the crowd of Madbloods, weaving this way and that as the driver tried to avoid running anyone over. “Pardon me!” he yelled again, and now Victor recognized the face of Wallace Park, grinning goofily as always. “All right up there, Gromit?” he added in a yell, looking up to the sky.
Victor followed his gaze and saw Gromit flying low overhead in a little red plane that looked remarkably like the sidecar to the motorcycle. The dog gave his master a thumbs up, then pulled down a set of flight goggles and leaned over the hidden controls. A fat-looking gun popped out of the front of the plane, and Gromit started firing something that looked like porridge on a contingent of zombie Cards, flatting them to the ground. Food as a weapon? Victor thought, surprised. I wouldn’t have –
A rather oversized ear of corn suddenly shot through the air over his head, smashing into a building and crushing one of the screaming monsters. “All right, Sam, how are we doing?” the voice of Flint Lockwood called. Victor saw the young man standing on top a large carriage near the end of the street, holding the remote to the FLDSMDFR and looking surprisingly serious.
“So far so good!” Sam said, consulting something on a flat screen. “No sign of any major food storm activity yet! But there was a small shower of marshmallows on the north side of town, so be careful!”
“Gummy bears?” Steve asked, climbing up onto Flint’s head.
“Only in case of emergency,” Flint said, fingers moving rapidly on the remote. “How are things up there, Manny?”
“Fine,” a voice cracked over a radio speaker. Victor looked up again, curious. Ah yes – another plane had joined Gromit’s. This one looked like someone had taken a rather tall motorized carriage, painted it blue, and given it large, rather ungainly wings. It seemed to fly well enough, though. “Though more tentacles seem to be coming this way.”
“Oh great. Sam, what do you think? Molasses?”
Sam never got a chance to reply, as a pink tentacle ripped through a nearby building. Victor gasped and reeled backward as it flailed. Oh, there was no way porridge or molasses could possibly fight that –
“Gangway!” a voice called from above. Victor looked up yet again to see Astrid astride a blue beast that resembled a parrot as much as it did a lizard. A very large, spike-covered parrot. It roared and swung its tail at the tentacle – a shower of spines thudded into the tentacle’s flesh, prompting a scream from an unknown source. “Good job, Yellowspike!” Astrid said, swooping low over the ground before shooting back into the sky. “Hey guys, we’ve got a mess to clean up!”
“You mean a mess to make,” another female voice called as more dragons joined Yellowspike. Victor recognized the one in front carrying the new girl as the two-headed beast that had frightened Victoria that day at the shop (God, that felt so long ago now). “Who wants to take advantage of the chance to wreck this town?”
“Oh, definitely me,” the boy said from his perch on the other head. “Fart? Belch?”
The dragon made what Victor supposed was a happy noise. “Let’s cause some chaos!” the twins yelled, pumping their fists before descending on the tentacle. “Hey, bride of Grendel!”
“Get out of the way and let the real hero do his work!” another, fatter boy on a large red dragon said, swooping around them. “Hey, ugly! I’m gonna tear all your tentacles off! With my FACE!”
The tentacle lashed up, forcing both dragons to zip out of the way – and even then, it knocked the red one slightly off course. “Oooh, that’s definitely a +3 to agility,” another boy, this one absolutely huge compared to the others, commented from his perch on an equally rotund dragon. “Maybe even a +5.”
“You heard Fishlegs!” And now Victor recognized Hiccup, Astrid’s boyfriend, astride a large black dragon with catlike green eyes. One tailfin on the back was missing, replaced by a red artificial construct. “Get in, strike, and get out fast!”
“Yeah, yeah!” The boy on the red dragon zipped up the length of the tentacle, the dragon trailing fire out of its mouth that seemed to stick to the red flesh. There was another scream of pain. “Hey, think it tastes like chicken?”
“I’d say there’s a 75% chance that it’s poisonous, Snotlout,” Fishlegs said, looking disgusted.
Victor spun around. “Doc – oh, Sir Christopher! I’m sorry--”
“Never mind that!” Sir Christopher said, waving an arm as he ran up to the young man. Victor had never seen him this agitated – he really looked like his employer now. “Have you seen Victoria? Or any of the Everglots?”
“No, I haven’t,” Victor said, just as a loud explosion sounded behind him. He turned to see the tentacle collapse, as the twins on the green dragon gave each other a high five. “I’d imagine they’d be h-hiding in the Cogwheel Hotel. Can you really see the Everglots going out in this mess?”
“That’s just the thing! I’ve been to the Cogwheel Hotel! It’s been destroyed!”
“What?!” For the first time, Victor noticed that Sir Christopher’s sword was unsheathed – and that there was blood running down the blade. “What happened?!”
“Looks like a bunch of those Boojums – those screaming bastards, I thought it was a good name for them – got there and managed to tear the place apart,” Sir Christopher said, his face angry but his eyes frightened. “I managed to kill a good lot of them, and rescue who I could, but Victoria and her family were nowhere to be seen! I know Lord Everglot likes to hunt, but I’m certain this isn’t his sort of game! And if it is, you’ve been lying to us about how boring your hometown is.”
Victor fought off the urge to laugh, simply because it felt so inappropriate. “I’m certain that, if he’s ever shot anything like this with his vast collection of guns, he hasn’t told the rest of us,” he said. Then the mirth died. “But oh, Victoria. . .I can’t imagine how frightened she must be. . . .”
“I can’t either, but that’s only because I’ve seen it,” Sir Christopher said solemnly. “In the faces of all those visitors I rescued. I do hope she’s safe – if anything happened to her. . . .”
An arm suddenly thrust itself out of the ground near them. Victor and Sir Christopher jumped back as a zombie Card Guard forced its way through the cobbles of the street. It cracked its neck and limbs as it got its feet, then roared at them. “Oh, don’t bother,” Sir Christopher said, raising his sword. “I’ve beheaded probably a full pack of you lot by now--”
But he didn’t get a chance to behead this one. A steaming cup of tea suddenly flew over their heads to land square on the Card. It promptly exploded, sending green smoke into their faces. Once Victor had finished coughing and waving it out of his eyes, he saw the Card lying still in a puddle of green. “Was that Kaboom Tea?”
“It most certainly was,” a voice said behind them. Victor and Sir Christopher both turned to see Richard striding up to them, clutching a teapot-headed cane in a way that would be white-knuckled if he’d had flesh-and-blood hands. “Are you all right? I hope I didn’t hit you with the splash, but war calls for desperate measures.”
“Just some smoke,” Sir Christopher said. “Richard, have you seen Victoria?”
“No, I haven’t – I was just about to ask you if you’ve seen Emily,” Richard said, biting his lower lip. “She was just on my shop’s door when this Queen--” He said the word like it was the grossest thing to pass his lips in a fortnight “–did her little trick. And before I knew it, she was running in the other direction, pursed by a Jabberspawn and some screamy thing I’d never seen before. I put paid to them, but by the time I did, she vanished!” The anger in his face drained out for a moment, replaced by fright. “What if something’s happened to her? What if somebody’s taken her apart and used her in a stew? Or popped out her eyeballs and used her head for ninepins? Or torn her mother’s wedding dress?!”
“Do you really think Emily would care all that much about the last in this situation?” Victor said.
“It’s her mother’s wedding dress! And if it’s torn, that means the rest of her could be!” Richard looked around frantically. “I’ve got to find her!”
“What about Alice?” Victor demanded, that particular fright catching back up to him. “Have you seen her at all?”
“Yes, of course, she works for me. If you mean lately, no. She was out getting lunch when all this started. No doubt she’s run home to get herself properly equipped.” Richard grinned a very evil-looking grin. “This Queen won’t know what’s hit her once she starts killing monsters.”
“I don’t doubt,” Victor said. “How about Lewis, have you seen Lewis?”
“Lewis? No, he’s been busy with his project, remember? Though I imagine this will have gotten his attention. Don’t know if that happened in reality, of course. . . .”
“It must have,” Victor said, grabbing his tie and twisting it to help relieve the terror coursing through him. To his left, an Army Ant fell under a rain of porridge and “MASHED POTATOES!” “Richard, Christopher, the tentacles are coming from Wonderland Park!”
Richard and Sir Christopher’s jaws dropped in horror. “What?!” Sir Christopher demanded. “But – but Lewis would never do a thing like this. . . .”
“Maybe something’s happened to him,” Richard said, voice trembling.
Victor thought of his friend, cowering all alone while his precious park was shredded to bits all around him, and his resolve to get there doubled. “I’m going to find out! Follow me!” he cried, turning and running off again, swerving around some of the clockwork Madbloods fighting one of the angler Snarks as he did.
“Wait! Slow down! Victor!” Richard cried, giving chase. “We can’t help you if you go and leave us in the dust! Or the debris, as is more likely here!”
Victor barely listened. His mind was set – he was going to Wonderland Park, and he was going to help Lewis stop whatever had taken it over. He owed the man that much for giving him the most wonderful place in the world. Besides, some gut instinct told him Alice would most likely be there as well. She was a smart girl – she’d figure out where the monsters were coming from immediately, and go there to stop things at the source. I just hope we don’t come there too late!
He wove and twisted his way through the chaotic streets, trying his best to keep his mind on his goal. Around him, the fight continued. There some of the Berk dragon riders fought off another tentacle threatening some children. Here the Ghostbusters used their traps to imprison shrieking Boojums (passing by, Victor heard Dr. Venkman comment, “Scream all you want – I don’t give a crap so long as you don’t cover me in gunk.”) Around the corner, a young red-headed woman was being chased by some Snarks. Victor nearly made a detour to help her, but suddenly a beam of cold blue light hit the fish, freezing them in place. “It works!” a delighted voice cried, and Victor saw a young blond man with large goggles standing nearby, with a somewhat-familiar gun on a stand. Wracking his memory made him realize he’d seen the fellow the second day he’d been in Secundus – “Dr. Horrible,” wasn’t it? Good to see he got his freeze ray working, he thought vaguely.
The red-headed girl was staring at Dr. Horrible with an expression of shock. “B-Billy?”
“Penny! Are you all right?”
Victor decided Penny was in good hands and continued on his way. As he raced down the next street, a herd of multicolored ponies passed him, hooves thundering. “Come on, girls!” the one in the front, who looked like a purple unicorn, cried. “This is our home, and no one tries to take it over without answering to us!”
“Yeah!” a blue pegasus with a rainbow-colored mane added, flying above the others. “We’re gonna show them a world of hurt, aren’t we? We’re gonna clear out these intruders in ten seconds flat!”
“FOR THE HEEERD!” a pink pony yelled at the top of her lungs, bouncing along rather than running. Victor stared at her for a moment, then decided it wasn’t even worth wondering about and kept going. He wasn’t sure what good the little ponies would actually be, but any help would be appreciated in a time like this.
Case in point – as he crossed another street, he saw down the byway a man throwing what looked like lemons at some Mechanical Ladybirds that had been grown to an enormous size. “Don’t you drop stuff on me! Do you know who I am? I’m Cave Johnson! And I’m the guy who’s gonna burn your house down! With the LEMONS!”
Victor might have just dismissed him as normally insane if at that moment some of the lemons hadn’t exploded. As it was, he had to stop for a second and watch. A couple of the ladybirds went down, but the rest kept buzzing toward Mr. Johnson, large explosive acorns clutched in their legs –
And then there was an odd “vworp” sound, and everyone looked up to see a young woman appear on the top of a roof. “Chell!” Mr. Johnson yelled, throwing another lemon. “Get down here!”
The woman nodded, then backed up and took a running start toward the edge. Something catapulted her into the air as she reached the lip. Chell did a somersault, shooting at a white wall below her with a strange-looking gun that let off a loud whistle of steam as it fired. A strange blue hole appeared as the shot connected. She ground her way down a section of roof, then leaped for the hole while shooting at a different white wall a few feet away. An orange hole appeared on that one. Chell disappeared into the blue hole, then reemerged from the orange one, soaring directly above the ladybirds. She landed with what should have been a bone-breaking thud on the ground. But to Victor’s absolute shock, she stood easily and smirked at the amazed watchers. Then she turned and fired some of the strange energy from the gun at the ladybirds. Although no holes appeared on them (Does it only work on white walls?), the blasts did seem to disrupt their systems, and the ladybirds fell twitching to the ground, where they perished in the blasts from their own acorns. “Cave Johnson, we’re done here,” Mr. Johnson said cheerfully. “Good work, boots.”
Chell rolled her eyes as she looked down at the white boots covering her feet. Then she looked up as something came flying down from the roof, screaming “CATCH ME CATCH ME CATCH ME!” She raced toward it, holding out the gun. A few minutes later, she was sprawled on the ground, with a ball-shaped object now gripped by the pincers on the end of the device. “You caught me!” it cried, blinking a large blue optic. “Oh, but you fell over, nasty business – all right, lady? Funny I should make you fall over – you were just brilliant there, you know that? Absolutely amazing! Makes me wish I had legs! I bet I could do all sorts of fun stuff with them!”
Chell smiled as she got up and patted the ball fondly. Mr. Johnson jogged past them. “Come on, Chell, Wheatley, keep up! We’ve got lots more science to do!”
“Yes sir, Mr. Johnson!” the ball – Wheatley – cried. “Come on, love!” Chell nodded and ran after Mr. Johnson, Wheatley continuing to babble on. “We should have brought along one of the turrets! No, two! Oi, lady, Chell, I just had a brilliant idea – what if we joined two turrets together? Sort of a – what do they call them – Siamese twins! And maybe we could attach them to a Weighted Storage Cube – that would make them even tougher to beat. . . .”
The trio disappeared down the street. Victor stared after them a moment, then shook his head and continued on his own way. “And I really thought I’d seen everything in this city. . . .”
Finally, he arrived at his destination. The fence was still up around the park, but Victor didn’t know if that was a promising sign or not – was it keeping monsters in, or keeping rescuers out? The gate hanging open at the front probably negated any effort either way, honestly. Victor could see more vicious, thorny roses hissing by what remained of it. What happened to the old talking flowers? On second thought, I probably don’t want to know. At any rate, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go in by the front. . . .
He cautiously edged his way along the side of the fence, keeping an eye on things inside. What he could see broke his heart. Wonderland Park – beautiful, amazing Wonderland Park – had been utterly perverted. The trees had been twisted and gnarled, or uprooted altogether and left to rot on the ground. Rather vicious-looking fungi sprouted out of the ground, including mushrooms Victor was sure had teeth around their caps. The pleasant-smelling, pretty to look at flowers were gone, replaced by those hissing roses and withered, lifeless stems. The bread-and-butterflies and rocking-horseflies were gone as well – the air was now filled with the buzzing of mechanical ladybirds and what looked like bolts sporting dragonfly wings. Victor blinked, doing his best to hold back tears. “Oh Lewis,” he whispered. “What’s happened to you?”
Finally, he found a spot that looked relatively safe and climbed over. He promptly darted into the shadows of some nearby trees to avoid detection. “All right, Victor, think,” he told himself softly. “Obviously, this Queen’s taken over the park and incapacitated or – or--” No, he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Saying it would make it far too real. “She’s done something to Lewis,” he settled on. “What about the other residents of the park? March is probably safe, as is Dormy – Richard would have said something otherwise. The Cheshire Cat can turn invisible and teleport, he’s probably all right too. Probably long gone as well. Not that I blame him. But what about the White Rabbit? I’ve got to find him, make sure he’s okay.” He barely knew the Rabbit, granted – apart from occasionally seeing him at Richard’s tea parties or around the park. But Victor knew he was a friend of Alice’s – and, really, he couldn’t in good conscience leave anyone to suffer in this new hellhole of a park. “I need a plan. I--”
A tentacle suddenly sheared off the top of the tree he was hiding behind. I’ll figure out the specifics on my feet! Victor promptly decided, and started running again. He wasn’t the best at improvisation – but it was quickly becoming apparent that staying in one place for too long was a death sentence. Particularly when you were at the epicenter of things. And if there was one thing he was good at, it was running.
He darted and wove around the various trees and rocks in his path, avoiding flailing tentacles and growling sounds. He wondered how the attacks on the Queen and her minions were going outside. The Queen seemed to have quite a lot of monsters at her command – and that wasn’t counting the tentacles (Where are they coming from? Are they hers?). But Victor had seen the fury and determination on every face he’d passed. The citizens of Secundus were not going to bow down to any Queen who tried to take over their city by force. Secundus was their home, the place where they could be themselves without fear, and all of them stood by the pact of “neutral ground.” And they’d defend it to the death if need be. I strongly suspect the Queen didn’t realize what she was getting into, Victor thought as he crept around a suspicious-looking rock. Good. He finished his creeping, stood up, took a quick look behind him –
Then turned and came face to face with a zombie Card Guard.
The Card – a diamond – screamed and grabbed him in a painfully-tight grip. Victor cried out as the claws bit through his suit and into his flesh. He managed to kick the creature in what passed for a stomach (right underneath the diamond-shaped hole that had been sliced out of its flesh, Oh God) and pulled himself free. Unfortunately, he also lost his balance by doing so, and landed hard on the ground. The Card screamed again and prepared to lunge –
And then, out of nowhere, a grey blur appeared above Victor’s head, resolving quickly into the form of a thin grey cat in mid-leap. With a hiss, the Cheshire Cat landed on the Card’s head, swiping with his claws at the creature’s neck. The Card cried out and tried to pull him off, but the Cat bit his hands and started climbing all over him, clawing and biting everywhere he could reach. Victor watched in open-mouthed amazement (and with one tiny wince of almost-sympathy when the Cat bit down extra-hard between the creature’s legs).
Finally, the diamond was downed. The Cheshire Cat sat on his prey’s body and licked a paw. Victor got up and went over to him. “I – I thought for sure you w-would have left,” he whispered.
Cheshire looked up at him, yellow eyes gleaming. “Cats aren’t loyal like a dog is loyal, that’s true,” he nodded, his grin looking a bit strained. “But we’re not totally unfeeling creatures. We protect our own. Or, at least, I do.”
Victor smiled. “Thank you.”
Cheshire’s grin turned a little more genuine. “Besides, Alice would have my hide if I let you get hurt,” he continued, washing his other paw. “And I rather like it where it is.”
“I would have preferred it if it hadn’t gotten damaged on my account,” Victor said, noting with a wince some nasty-looking scratches on Cheshire’s side. He held out his hands. “Would you like to come with me? I’m looking for the White Rabbit.”
“You’ll be sure to find him if you only wander far enough,” Cheshire said, climbing into his outstretched arms and up to rest around his shoulders. “If only because that means you’re more likely to run into him as he panics. There are some areas where Rabbit shines like a star, but ‘having common sense’ is not one of them.”
Victor nodded, then laughed. “Oh, who am I to judge? I ran all the way here – to the absolute center of the disaster – just to try and see if all of you were all right.”
“Yes, you’re not one for sense either,” Cheshire agreed easily as they set off again. “On the other hand, you are one for loyalty and caring. I would have expected nothing less from you.” Victor felt quite touched.
They reached the Vale of Tears without further incident (though there was a close call with a pack of Boojums flying around). Victor felt his stomach turn. The once-beautiful Vale was now befouled with blood and black splashes of what looked like some sort of coal run-off. Alice’s statue had been smashed – the red-tinted water now leaped out of her lower legs, while pieces of her arms and face were scattered about. Victor touched the piece closest to him, tracing the stone tears trailing out of her left eye. “Cheshire, what happened?” he whispered.
“I’m afraid not even I can say fully,” Cheshire said, with a slight hiss in his voice. Victor could feel the cat’s thin fur prickling the back of his neck. “It’s not Lewis’s doing, though, I can assure you of that much. We haven’t seen him in days – not since this Queen marched out and declared her sovereignty over the rest of us. Some of us tried to escape to the outside world and send a warning, but she’d already planted those damnable roses. . .I’ve only just gotten one of their thorns out of my paw. And then more and more monsters started pouring from the doors of Looking-Glass House, and our attempts at escape were forgotten in favor of a fight for our lives.”
Victor reached back and placed a hand on Cheshire’s head. “I’m so sorry for you,” he whispered.
“Don’t be sorry for me – be sorry for the ones who didn’t make it. She’s got the real card and chess royalty locked up at the very least – they’d never agree to the Card Guards being used for her purposes. Of course, the Card Guards didn’t agree either. . . .” Victor shuddered. “And none of us want to consider what our esteemed creator might be going through. If he’s--”
“Please don’t say it,” Victor whispered. “I want to keep that hope alive, foolish as it may be.”
He felt Cheshire nod. “When you can keep nothing else alive, you may as well focus on hope.” His tail flicked against Victor’s arm. “It’s dangerous to linger here, though. Those new Snarks of hers--”
As if called, one came leaping out of the water, teeth chomping at the air as if it hoped to rend the very oxygen. Victor flung himself to the side, Cheshire jumping off him as he did. “Be wary!” the Cat called, taking a swipe at the Snark’s tail. “You can’t even trust the fungi!”
“I noticed!” Victor said.
“No you didn’t! One’s almost on top of you!”
Horrified, Victor looked up. Sure enough, he was underneath one of the fanged mushrooms. Which promptly started opening and closing like an umbrella, creating a strange suction that threatened to drag him into the maw of the beast. Victor gripped at what little grass was left, struggling mightily to get away. Behind him, he heard a yowl that suggested Cheshire’s fight with the Snark wasn’t going as well as the cat had hoped. Damn it, no! he thought, aiming a kick at the mushroom’s stem. All that got him was a scratch from one of its teeth. I can’t end my days eaten by a mushroom! Think, Victor, think! Ow, that cut really stings – does it have a poisonous bite? I can’t tell if this is a dangerous sort of mushroom – well, dangerous in the usual sense, of course. . .if only I were poisonous to it, like a monarch butterfly. . .No like a butterfly that secreted acid release a rabble of them on this thing and it wouldn’t trouble us anymore I bet I could use the same tricks a monarch uses – AAAAHHH!
Victor’s grip loosened on the ground as he tried to resist the urge to grab his head. Why did he have to get one of his headaches now?! Oh God the pain was horrible – it was actually sort of tempting to just let the mushroom eat him –
What looked like a croquet ball carved to resemble a curled hedgehog suddenly zipped over his head and smashed straight into the stem of the mushroom. Electricity arced over the surface of the fungi, making it scream. This assault was quickly followed by a spray of playing cards embedding themselves into the mushroom’s cap. The mushroom retaliated with a cloud of toxic green spores – Victor hurriedly covered his mouth and nose. This didn’t seem to discourage the attacker in the least, however – what looked like a pocket watch flew through the air next, landing right on the tip of the mushroom’s cap. It promptly exploded in a shower of familiar green tea. The mushroom screamed a final time, then went limp, down for the count. Victor took a moment to catch his breath, then got up and turned to look at his savior.
Alice stood behind him, hair flowing in a slight breeze, eyes narrowed with anger and determination. She was wearing her favorite blue dress and apron, but over that was a thick utility belt, with her Ice Wand, Vorpal Blade, and the meanest-looking pepper grinder Victor had ever seen dangling from it. Strapped across her back at angles, like a pair of peculiar wings, were a hobby horse and a croquet mallet. In her hands she held what looked like a angry, organic orange teapot with a fanged spout and a pressure gauge on the side. She was frightening and terrible and –
Beautiful, Victor caught himself thinking. Dolled up with her entire arsenal and I still think she’s the loveliest creature on Earth. Mother would have me sent to the madhouse.
Alice hurried up to him, trodding on the corpse of the Snark as she did so – Victor noted it looked like it had been beaten to death with a heavy object. He took another look at the hobby horse (really a hobby unicorn) and noted blood about the muzzle. “Are you all right?” she demanded, voice harsh but eyes quite worried.
“Much better now that you’re here,” Victor told her. “Are you all right? How’s Cheshire?”
“Very impressed with how well they make hobby horses these days,” Cheshire said, sitting beside the fish. He sniffed the Snark. “Ugh – the least this wicked monarch could have done was make these good to eat.”
“The least this Queen could have done was not exist at all,” Alice replied, before turning back to Victor. “What were you thinking, coming here without a weapon?! Are you mad?” She reached behind her and slid out the croquet mallet. “Here, take this. At least you’ll be able to hit things with it. God, when I saw you over here, I was wondering you wanted to commit suicide. Why aren’t you with Doc and Marty? I know Doc owns a gun – you’d at least be safe with them!”
Victor accepted the croquet mallet silently, suddenly feeling very foolish. “I – I just – I s-saw where the t-tentacles were coming f-from, and I – I h-had to get over here, h-had to s-see if. . . .”
Alice sighed deeply, then suddenly pulled him into a hug. “You have to think before you run,” she said softly. “You should have at least picked up some fallen chunk of wood, or even a goddamn rock. . .Victor, if I l-lose you. . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Victor whispered, holding her close. “I’m sorry I let my w-worry get the best of me. But when I realized Wonderland Park was the c-center of the mess. . . .” He pulled away to look at her. “Have you seen Lewis? Or the White Rabbit?”
“No sign of either – I’m hoping they’ve both gotten out,” Alice said, looking around. “Though I admittedly don’t have high hopes for Lewis having escaped. . . . She’s practically destroyed the park, you know. Everything that isn’t one of her monsters is withering and dying. And she’s not taking proper care of the machinery at all.” She looked with disgust at the puddles of coal gunk on the ground. “You know, given everything that’s happening, I half expect those to turn out to be monsters as well. Maybe gigantic leeches.”
Victor shuddered. “Let’s not consider the possibility. What she h-has brought against us is enough.” He looked Alice up and down. “Well, enough against anyone not as well-armed as you.”
It got a laugh out of her. “Always be prepared,” she said with a proud smile, turning around. Victor saw now that she wore a backpack over the harness for the croquet mallet and hobby horse. “I’ve got some jackbombs and clockwork bombs packed in here, and my cards and my jacks are in my apron pocket. You can see the rest of it.”
“What’s the difference between a jackbomb and a clockwork bomb?” Victor asked, puzzled.
“Clockwork bombs just explode. Jackbombs can set things on fire.” Alice pressed what Victor had thought was a rivet on her harness. The backpack popped open and a small gripper extended, holding what looked like a Jack-in-the-box. “Thank you.” She took the offered “toy” and cranked the handle, before throwing it in the direction of the mushroom. It played a bit of “Pop Goes The Weasel” before the Jack popped out.
And promptly started spewing fire from its mouth. Victor gaped as it spun round and round, setting everything nearby aflame. Then it exploded, leaving a field of fire. “Oh my. . . .”
“Good, aren’t they?” Alice said.
“Yes, though – I never expected you to use a f-fire-based weapon,” Victor admitted, looking at her.
Alice looked at the flames for a moment. “It’s not my favorite,” she confessed. “I prefer using the clockwork bombs whenever possible. But if I know the destructive power of fire, why limit myself in a fight?” She looked over at him, eyes hard. “Especially a fight like this. This is a war, plain and simple.”
“I noticed,” Victor said. “It looks like the entire city is fighting back against the Queen. People do take ‘neutral ground’ seriously, don’t they?”
“They do indeed. Which gives me hope we can take this bitch down quickly.”
“Much as I’m sure all this exposition is necessary,” Cheshire commented, padding over to them, “I think it would be prudent if we stopped standing around like easy snacks and got moving.”
“Right,” Alice said, picking up the Cat. “Let’s see if we can find Lewis and take out a few more of these monsters.” She looked hard at Victor. “You’re staying close to me, understand? And God help you if you drop that mallet.”
Victor gripped it hard with both hands. “U-understood perfectly.”
Alice looked at him for a long moment. Then, out of nowhere, she grabbed his tie and kissed him. “J-just in case the worst happens,” she whispered, eyes suddenly watery. “I l-love you, Victor. Don’t forget that.”
Victor smiled, feeling a little misty-eyed himself. “Never. But I think it would be best if we stopped the worst from happening, don’t you?”
Alice grinned. On anyone else, such a grin would look psychotic. On her – well, it still looked psychotic, but it was a psychotic Victor quite liked. “I agree. Let’s go show this Queen what we’re really made of.”