March 16th, 18–
Alice glared into the kitchen as it if had personally insulted her. Still no sign of Victor! Granted, she hadn’t been able to search the house as closely as she would have liked – having to fight monsters every five minutes prevented that – but she really thought she would have stumbled upon wherever he had been hidden by now. At the very least, I would have liked to have found the Executioner again, she thought, eyes narrowing almost to slits. I owe that bastard.
Well, as long as she was here and had a moment to herself, she might as well look for some supplies. All this running around and fighting made one hungry. She stepped cautiously into the room, blade at the ready. The kitchen was in clear disarray, with tables overturned and chairs broken, but at least the walls had been spared a flesh covering. Perhaps the Queen didn’t want to infect her food with her distinctive smell. Alice opened up the icebox, found nothing of interest except some rather moldy-looking vegetables, then tried the pantry. Most of the nonperishable food was missing too, but on one shelf there seemed to be something –
Alice’s face lit up in a mixture of shock and glee. The shelf contained a few small pieces of Eat Me cake and a couple of Drink Me bottles! I thought for sure she would have taken every piece of cake in the house to bulk up her Executioner! No matter – this is just what I need! She grabbed one of the bottles, slugged down its contents in a single gulp, and watched as the world grew to enormous size around her. She grinned and headed for the door. Stealth is now the name of the –
Alice stumbled backward, startled at suddenly being full-sized again. She pressed a hand to her lips, baffled. Now why – Oh, damn, I should have thought more about why she’d leave such useful items behind, she thought, scowling. They must be from some defective batches. Damned if I know why Lewis decided to keep them. Then again, he really seemed to hate throwing anything away. . . She looked down at the empty bottle. How long did it keep me small for? A minute? Does it work the same with the cake? She returned to the pantry and took the tiniest nibble from a chunk of Eat Me to test. It did, shooting her head up to the ceiling within moments, then back down just as quickly. Alice sighed deeply. Now, what good does that do me?
She looked at the foodstuffs hard for a moment. Then, grabbing some parchment, she wrapped up the cakes and stuck them in an apron pocket, along with the remaining bottle of Drink Me. Might be more useful than I think. Even one minute of being giant or tiny might mean the difference between life or death. And it’s better not to let the Queen have them, defective or no. She exited the kitchen, pulling her cards out of the other pocket to fling them at a waiting Red Pawn. Back to the search. Please hold on a little longer, Victor. I’ll be there soon, I promise.
“Yah! Yah! Yah!”
“Why do you yell that every time you stab something?”
“Seems like the thing to do.”
Victoria supposed she couldn’t argue with that. She hit a leech thing squealing at her with her poker, causing it to pop. She grimaced and ducked as black goo went flying everywhere. “Ugh, why must everything be so disgusting in this house. . . .”
“I don’t know, but hopefully we won’t have to put up with it too much longer,” Emily said, stabbing the Snark on her side one last time. The fish fell over with a scream, mortally wounded. “We have to be near an exit now, don’t we?”
“I don’t know,” Victoria admitted, looking around the fleshy corridor. “I’ve lost all sense of direction. And isn’t this place supposed to be bigger on the inside?”
“I’m sticking with ‘we have to be near an exit now,’” Emily said stubbornly. “We’ve been through far too much not to be.” Her frown faded a little. “Of course, I’m starting to wonder if the outside is really any better than in here.”
“It has to be, unless she’s covered the sky with this horrible flesh,” Victoria said, eyeing the pulsing pink wall.
“Oh God, Victoria, don’t give her ideas!” Emily took her friend’s arm. “Let’s at least see what’s at the end of this hallway.”
What was at the end proved to be a fork – one corridor going left, one going right. The girls looked down each hall, frowning. “Which should we choose?” Victoria asked, holding her poker out in front of her. There were no enemies she could see, but doing so made her feel better.
“I don’t know,” Emily said, turning her head from right to left, then back again. “Either way is probably just as horrible.” She released Victoria’s arm. “How about you take a quick look down the left way, and I’ll go to the right. Once we’ve got an idea where each goes, we can meet back up and choose.”
Victoria bit her lip. “I d-don’t like the idea of leaving you,” she admitted, fiddling with her poker.
“Neither do I,” Emily said, using her free hand to twirl a lock of hair. “But it’s only for a minute or two. Down to the end of the halls, then straight back here. We’ll even be in sight of each other the whole way.”
Well, there was little that could go wrong with that plan, admittedly. Victoria nodded. “Right. Let’s go then.” The sooner they took a look, the sooner they could get back together. They split up and started walking, taking little glances back at each other as they did.
The sound of something moving beneath the floor registered in their ears a moment too late. As each spun around to warn the other, a forest of tentacles sprouted up between them, too thick and numerous for them to even see through. “Emily!”
“Victoria!” The girls ran back to the new wall. “Oh no! Let me see if I – that’s my sword! Give it back!”
Victoria, who had been on the verge of hitting a tentacle with her poker, clutched it to her chest. Another tentacle gave her a hard shove, pushing her back down the corridor. A yelp from Emily suggested the same had happened to her. “I t-think we have no choice but to keep going,” Victoria called to her, voice quavering.
“Me too,” Emily replied, her own voice shaky. “Oh, I’m so sorry. . . .”
“You couldn’t have known. Please be safe.”
“You too. Yes, yes, I’m on my way, you wretched things. . . .”
Victoria dodged another push from the tentacle, then started walking away from the wall, listening to Emily’s footsteps fade as she did the same. Both girls hesitated for a moment at the ends of their respective corridors, wishing that they had their friend by their side.
Then both girls glared at the ceiling as cruel laughter echoed throughout the house, and plunged on.
Astrid cleaved another Snark in two. “Ha! You think you’re horrible?” she mocked the corpse. “We have Terrible Terrors at home! They would eat you for breakfast!”
“Quite literally, I’m sure,” Flint agreed, poking it with the end of the candlestick they’d found to serve as his weapon. Gromit, standing beside him holding a table leg, sniffed the corpse and wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Can I say again just how glad I am that we found each other?”
“So long as you don’t distract me from my killing.” Astrid grinned viciously in the direction of a Red Bishop. This was what she liked – being able to lose herself in the bloodlust of a good fight to the death. Being able to hack up an enemy and feel absolutely certain he or she (or it) deserved every last bit of pain you’d inflicted on it. That was the one bad thing about having made peace with the dragons – you started feeling guilty about all the ones you had killed in the past. Granted, the dragons seemed very forgiving (both sides seemed to understand the other had just been trying to survive), but that didn’t lessen the ache as much as she’d like. So she appreciated the Queen sending out all these creatures that were either pure evil or obviously far too gone to save. It was very cathartic working out her frustrations on them. She screamed out a war cry and charged at the Bishop.
Only to stop short as a spurt of green flame set the thing on fire. Her eyes widened. Could it be – “Toothless?”
The black dragon’s head appeared around a corner, looking quite satisfied with himself. Hiccup appeared a moment later, slightly limping as always on his false leg. “Astrid! I had a feeling that was you,” he grinned.
“Hiccup!” Astrid slipped her axe onto her back before running forward and greeting him with a kiss. “I’m glad to see you – but what the hell are you and he doing here?” she added, giving him a little punch for good measure. “You should be outside, not stuck with us!”
“You got that backwards,” Hiccup said, rubbing his arm. “And we’re not stuck – a whole bunch of people blasted their way in. So we figured we ought to try and find out where you were before Lady Heterodyne and Baron Wulfenbach decided the best thing to do was flatten the place from the air.”
“The Heterodyne and Wulfenbach are here?” Flint said, looking astonished.
“Flint! Damn, it’s good to see you. And Gromit too – we found all of them in one go, bud,” Hiccup said, grinning at his dragon. Toothless made a happy noise and grinned back, showing his pink gums. “Man, I’m glad you’re all okay – and yeah, apparently they just arrived today. Great timing, huh?”
“They’re definitely the people I’d want backing me up in a crisis like this,” Flint said, Gromit nodding along.
“Yeah, but not flattening the house I’m currently in,” Astrid pointed out. “Did Toothless do his thing to get you in?” she added, smiling fondly at the dragon.
“Actually, no,” Hiccup admitted. “Wish I’d thought of that, though. First one in was Alice Liddell with the biggest gun I’d ever seen in my life.” He grinned at Astrid. “She. Was. Furious. This Queen doesn’t stand a chance.”
Gromit tilted his head, lifting his ears and furrowing his brow in a question. Hiccup, very well-versed in the ways of nonverbal communication, picked up on what sort of question immediately. “Apparently, the Queen kidnapped her boyfriend – remember that pale guy we saw with her last time we went to the Roofless, Astrid?”
“Victor!” Flint nodded. “Yeah, I stopped by their table. It was weird to see Alice all dressed up. She’s really sweet on him.” He frowned. “And the Queen took him?”
“Yup, according to Alice.”
“. . .You’re right, the Queen doesn’t stand a chance. I think we should try to escape before the explosions really start. And I know explosions.”
“I’d kind of like to see her take the bitch down – but you’re right, I’d prefer to live another day,” Astrid admitted as both Flint and Gromit gave her stern looks. “All right, Hiccup, where’s the way out?”
There was a groan down where Hiccup and Toothless had come. Boy and dragon looked back. “Well, behind that pack of Card Guards, for a start.”
Astrid smirked, pulling free her axe. “Oh, goodie.”
Razzum-frazzum tentacles just had to steal my sword from me. . .I earned that weapon fair and square. And I definitely don’t like wandering around here without it.
Truth be told, though, Emily hadn’t had much need for her lost sword lately. The hallways she’d been walking down were eerily quiet. Only once had she come across some enemies, and those had been those icky little leeches. A few stomps with her foot had taken care of them easily (though she suspected it would be harder to get the slime off her toes). She frowned thoughtfully as she turned another corner. I wonder where all the monsters went off–
Emily ducked back around the corner, suppressing a scream. Standing not five feet away from her was the largest Card Guard she’d seen yet! Urged on by that terrible curiosity that plagues a person in peril, she took another peek. The creature actually seemed to be multiple Card Guards sewn together, topped by a joker’s head with tentacles coming out of the eye sockets. In its hands it held a huge scythe, which it was swinging from side to side idly. Well, that’s definitely the Queen’s top soldier, Emily thought, biting her lip. But why hasn’t he been chasing us? A creature like that could take anyone down with one swipe of that scythe! . . .Then again, the Queen could have just killed both of us when she dragged us in here, couldn’t she? She’s like a cat playing with a mouse – letting it run away and tire itself out before the final pounce. Emily shuddered. I hate being a mouse. No offense, Dormy.
She eyed the giant guard again, wondering if it was possible to get past him. It didn’t look like he could see – but Emily had dealt with Jabberspawn, and knew that wasn’t much of an impediment to a predator. And deep in her bones, she knew this thing was a predator. She’d have to be pretty clever to sneak by him. Maybe she could –
Wait. Was that a door behind the guard? Emily risked sticking her head out a little further. It was! Should I try to get to it? I assume he’s standing there because there’s something important inside. On the one hand, being in a room guarded by the Queen’s biggest monster might actually be the safest place in this house. After all, everything else in this place must be frightened of him – why would the halls be so empty otherwise? On the other hand – do I really want to confront whatever’s in that room if he’s needed to guard it? What if it’s the Queen herself? And me still without a weapon. . . .
Emily puzzled over the problem for a long couple of minutes. Finally, she shook her head. Even if it is the Queen in there, I’m going to try it. Maybe I can do something to her. And what’s the worst she can do? Kill me? She fought back a giggle. All right, I’ve got to do this just right. . . .
She sneaked around the corner, making sure to keep to the shadows and treading as lightly as possible. The guard didn’t seem to notice her, now too busy inspecting his scythe blade. Taking a deep and unnecessary breath, she darted across the hall to the other wall.
This motion the guard did notice – and just as she suspected, he moved forward a little to investigate. Emily took the opportunity to dash along the wall and to the door. It opened easily when she grabbed the doorknob – thank Heavens! – and she darted inside. As she slammed it behind her, she heard a grumpy snarl and the crash of what sounded like a blade being smashed into the floor just outside. She gulped, well aware of how close she had come to possible destruction. But would the bastard try to drag her out?
Fortunately, it seemed the guard didn’t actually care that much – nothing happened after the crash. Apparently she would be allowed to remain inside. Emily let herself sag against the door in relief. Whew! Now, where – am. . .I?
Emily stared. The room appeared to be a laboratory of some sort – Lewis’s, obviously. The Queen had done a number on the place – there was shattered glassware in the corners, books, papers, and journals torn and scattered about like confetti, and some broken tables and chairs. But someone had salvaged quite a bit from the wreckage – there were some petri dishes set up on one of the usable tables, and bits of a chemistry set hissing and bubbling away. Emily would have been inclined to wonder if Lewis was in fact still alive –
If it weren’t for the scribblings all over the wall.
Emily’s eyes followed the words as they traveled up and down along the wallpaper. Somebody had been writing quite rapidly, it looked like, about things she barely understood. This was something she was used to from Richard’s shop, admittedly – but Richard had never included such beautiful pictures interspersed among his equations. Flitting around all the formulae and other notes were sketches of butterflies and moths, some mid-flight, others at rest. Here and there were detailed drawings of wings and heads and legs. It was all rather pretty –
And rather familiar. Emily stepped forward, looking at a butterfly with wings fully spread above a sentence proclaiming something-or-other about “morphological instability.” She’d seen something quite like it before. In a sketchbook belonging to one Victor Van –
No, she told herself, shaking her head in disbelief. No, it couldn’t be!
But the resemblance was unmistakable. And the handwriting looked like his too. Rather more jagged than he usually wrote, with the letters bunching up and over each other, but it was still his typical long and skinny style. But why would he be writing on the walls like this? This was something a – a – It can’t be. . . .
For a second, Emily would have sworn that she’d died again of shock. She spun around to find Victor standing behind her, grinning. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!” he said, embracing her quickly. “Are the others here too? Have you come to rescue me? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a moment, I’ve got something going here, but once I’m done--”
Emily just stared at him, unable to do anything else. It was clearly Victor in shape, but – the details were all wrong, so to speak. He was talking much faster than usual, and moving with a manic excitement she’d never seen in him before. And that smile – it was much different from his regular smiles. It threatened to split his face in two, and showed off rather more teeth than she thought he should have. (Of course, Victor smiling in a way that showed teeth was rare enough. . . .) And his eyes – there was a faint glaze to them, like Victor wasn’t really aware of the outside world. Like he was focused far more intently on something inside his own head. Emily knew that look too. But – it was impossible!
Victor seemed to notice that she hadn’t replied to any of his ramblings. The smile faded slightly. “Emily?” he said, sounding a bit more like himself. “Are you all right?”
“I – Victor, are you all right?” Emily said weakly.
The grin came back full force. “Oh, I’m wonderful! Well, maybe not wonderful, there’s still the little matter of this Queen, but wonderful enough given the circumstances! It’s incredible, Emily, it feels like the whole world’s aglow and I have all these ideas and--” He leaned up close to her, eyes bright and wild. “I can do anything.”
Emily decided the details on how Victor, of all people, could be suffering from Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder (and part of her still wouldn’t accept it – had the Queen done something to him? That seemed more logical than this) could wait. “Can – can you get us out of here?” she asked, twisting her hands together. “Only – Victoria’s in here too, and I’d really like to be able to find her and help her. . . .”
“Oh, yes, I just had an idea about that! A most fantastic idea! And you can help me test it!”
“Well, yes, I need a test subject and you’re the only one here, so. . . .” Victor bounced on his heels. “It’s a great idea, Emily! You’ll love it! I know you will!”
Emily had no idea what to say for a moment. This version of Victor – well, if she was honest with herself, he scared her. Just a little, but he did. It was like someone (or something) else had completely taken over his body. And the idea of being a newly Creative Touched’s test subject was – disconcerting. Yes, she’d volunteered for experiments with Richard and Dr. Finklestein, but that was different. She knew their style of madness – and knew they would never, ever hurt her. (Well, not intentionally.) And while she trusted Victor for the most part, she also knew that new Touched weren’t always the best about safety. . . .
And yet – she was tempted to say yes. Because if Victor really was Touched, then he was a certified genius. And a genius would be able to get them out of this mess, wouldn’t he? She really wanted to find Victoria and get them out of this horrible place. And – it was Victor still, wasn’t it? The madness hadn’t wiped her dear friend completely out, had it? Emily felt a sudden pang – oh, how was Alice going to take this? Something of Victor had to have survived, simply for her sake. Emily bit her lip as she wavered on a delicate balance, waiting for something to tip the scales one way or the other.
The smile lessened again. “It – it really is safe,” Victor said, touching her arm gently. “And I won’t make you do it. It would be amazing if you did, but – if you want to watch me test it on myself and take notes instead. . . .”
The scales smashed down on one side so hard they put a hole in the metaphorical desk they sat on. “I’ll do it,” Emily said immediately. She was not going to let Victor test anything on himself. She was the safer choice for test subject by a mile. After all, she was dead to begin with – what else could he do to her? And – and she really did want to trust him.
Victor’s face lit up. “You’re wonderful, Emily!” he said, hugging her again. “All right, it’s right over here, I just finished making it. . . .”
A few minutes later, the door opened just the slightest crack. The Executioner, glaring at a far wall and idly swinging his scythe again, didn’t notice.
Nor did he notice the rabble of brilliant blue butterflies that streamed out of the room and vanished back around the corner.
Victoria clutched her poker tightly to herself, fighting back tears. She hated being all alone in this wreck of a house. Things had seemed so much better with Emily by her side. True, she’d still been trapped in a horrific maze of flesh, stalked by monsters at every turn – but she’d had someone to share the load then, someone to help her fight. Someone to at least talk to. Now. . .now she felt lost and adrift, like she was caught in the tide and being pulled out to sea. Of course, Hildegarde would remind me that the sea leads to many places, she thought, looking behind her to make sure nothing was trying to sneak up on her. But I doubt this one leads to anywhere better.
“Well, hello, Miss Everglot.”
. . .Case in point. “Lord Barkis?” she said, turning around again. The disgraced noble stood in front of her, carrying a curved sword and looking very well for someone stuck in the Queen’s base of operations. Still, Victoria supposed she could spare a shred of sympathy for him if he was a fellow captive. “So she got you too?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Barkis said, running his thumb along his blade. “I met her before this whole mess started. Once you get past the tentacles, she’s actually quite the persuasive speaker.”
Victoria felt a coldness in her stomach. No, he couldn’t be – not even Lord Barkis Bittern could be that despicable. “You’re not--”
“She’s promised me quite a lot of things I like,” Barkis replied, smiling. “Land of my own, a new grand title, any woman I want in the world, the chance to revenge myself on Van Dort--” He lifted the sword. “Oh, and the chance to kill you personally. And rekill Emily, if that’s at all possible.”
And she’d considered feeling even a touch of sympathy for this man?! “You monster!” Victoria screamed, backing up and holding out her poker. “How could you?! She’s going to destroy this city!”
“The world, actually – but why should I care? The world’s never been exactly friendly to me,” Barkis replied, then eyed her weapon. “Are you really threatening me with a fireplace poker?”
“Yes,” Victoria said shortly, and proceeded to jab him in the side. Barkis yelped and jumped backward. “And if the world’s never been friendly to you, I say it’s because you’ve never been friendly to it. How many young ladies’ lives have you ruined, Lord Barkis?”
“I’m about to make it five,” Barkis snarled, and ran at her, swinging his sword. Victoria managed to deflect the blow with her poker, but just barely. The shock vibrated down her arm painfully. “Though if you’re talking strictly about the ones I killed, then you’re number four. The last one I tried to elope with got away. But I like to think the scandal ruined her reputation.”
“You’re awful,” Victoria said, trying to hit him with her poker again. He dodged out of the way and slashed at her with his sword, hitting her voluminous skirts and tearing a new rip in her dress. Better than in her skin. “You’re worse than the Queen. The Queen has the excuse of being inhuman. You – you’re just evil.”
“Yes, perhaps,” Barkis allowed. He suddenly lashed out with his foot, kicking her in the stomach and sending her sprawling onto the ground. He grinned and stood over her, raising his sword high. “But I’m going to win, aren’t I?” He lunged down –
Only for his blade to hit another, thrust suddenly between him and his target. “That’s still up for debate,” a voice growled.
“Christopher!” Victoria cried, her face lighting up.
Sir Christopher smiled down at her. “Am I glad to see you still in one piece!” Then his gaze turned back to Barkis, and his face went dark and thunderous. “No thanks to your would-be fiancé here.”
“And so the brave knight comes to rescue his princess – or his poverty-stricken lesser noble,” Barkis replied, backing up a step as Sir Christopher stepped out into the hallway properly. “Is she really worth that much to you?”
“She’s worth everything to me,” Sir Christopher said, sword raised. “Not that I would expect someone as soulless as you to understand that.”
“I may be soulless, but at least I’ll be alive when this is all over,” Barkis said, and tried to strike. Sir Christopher blocked him. “Can you say the same for yourself?”
“No, because I can’t see the future,” Sir Christopher said, slashing with his sword. Barkis parried and moved back. “But I would say probability is on my side.”
“I haven’t died yet, have I?” Sir Christopher countered another blow from Barkis. “And I strongly doubt I’m going to die at your hand.”
“Heh. You don’t know that for sure.” Barkis lunged again.
Sir Christopher dodged and stabbed forward, pinking Barkis’s arm. “No, but I’m 95% certain. And you don’t usually get that high a degree of certainty with anything. It also helps that I’d rather kill myself than be killed by you.”
“Oh, please do that and save me the trouble,” Barkis said, scoring a hit that clanged against Sir Christopher’s armor.
“Afraid I can’t. I promised to rescue Victoria or die trying – and committing suicide isn’t really ‘dying trying,’ is it?” Sir Christopher blocked yet another thrust. “I will say you’re a decent swordsman.”
“Thank you, I shall treasure the compliment,” Barkis said, sarcasm oozing off every word. “But I’m sure you think you’re a better one.”
“Well, yes, of course. I’ve spent more of my life training, and I have a long and illustrious career that mainly involves me killing dangerous things. It would be very hard for me to be a poor swordsman after all that.”
“So why not just kill me and get it over with?” Barkis challenged.
“Firstly, because I’ve never really liked killing other human beings, no matter how deranged or evil they are.”
“Softhearted,” Barkis sneered.
“Less than you might think,” Sir Christopher said with a pleasant smile. “My other reason is that I should leave such matters to the man standing behind you. You know, the one who’s girlfriend you actually killed.”
Barkis froze for a moment, then slowly looked up to see Richard’s face peering down at him. “Hello,” Richard said with a nasty smile. “Enjoying your little sword fight?”
Barkis spun, sword raised to slash at Richard. Richard, however, was faster, and grabbed his wrist. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t have any spare parts to repair myself at the moment.” He squeezed just a little, making Barkis yelp and drop the sword. “Now, I could blow you up with Kaboom Tea – I think everyone here would consider me quite justified. But I don’t like murder any more than Sir Christopher. Less, even, because my poor dear Emily had her life taken away from her by a scoundrel just interested in money. So I think we’ll just tie you up and drag you along and give you to Lady Heterodyne when all this is through. She’ll probably give you a nice job cleaning floors in her castle.”
“Cleaning floors in Castle Heterodyne?” Barkis cried, struggling in Richard’s iron grip. “That’s a death sentence!”
“No, it’s a job that carries a distinct risk of death, which is why they save it for the worst criminals,” Richard said, grinning even brighter. “And it’s nice and legal. And I bet the manual labor part of it will gall you even more than if we’d just had you killed! Don’t you just love justice?”
“It sounds wonderful to me,” Victoria said, regaining her feet. She rushed over to Sir Christopher and enveloped him in a hug. “I’m so glad to see you two!”
“Did you really think we’d just leave you in here?” Sir Christopher said, kissing her.
“I didn’t know if you knew I was in here at all! How did you find out?”
“Thank a little maggot that was in the right place at the wrong time,” Richard said, looking up from his captive with a frown. “Though he said you and Emily were pulled in together. Where is she?”
“We got separated,” Victoria said, feeling another pang. “Emily suggested we search different ends of a corridor, and the Queen put up a fence of tentacles to keep us apart. Oh, I’m so worried about her. . . .”
“Wasting her worry on a dead person,” Barkis mumbled. “Thank God I never had any intention of staying married to you for any length of time.”
“You know, I don’t have to deliver you to Lady Heterodyne all in one piece,” Richard said casually, squeezing Barkis’s wrist again. Then his expression turned again to concern. “Do you think that might have happened with us?”
“I sincerely hope not – we came in here with Doc and Marty,” Sir Christopher explained to Victoria. “They heard a noise in the other direction of the connecting hall here, so they went to investigate that while we went this way.”
“And it paid off!” Marty’s voice said. “Look who we found!”
The group turned to see Doc and Marty leading three other people, a dragon, and a dog down the hall. “Guess what, Barkis! We can set you on fire now if you misbehave!” Marty added with a shit-eating grin.
“Or Toothless could just chomp off a limb,” the young man sitting astride the dragon shrugged, smirking. The dragon followed suit. “Your choice.”
“And you dare accuse me of being bloodthirsty?” Barkis snapped.
“Did we? I don’t think that one came up,” Richard said, looking at Sir Christopher.
“No, I don’t believe it did either,” Sir Christopher shrugged. “But we may as well add it to the list. And in my line of work, Lord Bittern, one doesn’t get far if they show mercy to the wrong sort. We’re willing to spare your life even after discovering you’re apparently in cahoots with this Queen. I think that puts us well away from being bloodthirsty.”
“As for us,” the young blonde woman standing next to the dragon said, twirling an axe in her hands, “we’re Vikings. Occupational hazard.”
The man next to her, with some of the craziest hair Victoria had ever seen, grinned. “Isn’t this great? We’re all together! At least, I hope so.” The dog nodded, nose wrinkled in worry.
“I didn’t hear of anyone else being taken,” Doc said. “But we’re not all together yet, Flint. We still haven’t found Emily or Alice. And you think at this point we would have at least run into the latter.”
“I’m sure she’s around, if only to explain the lack of monsters in this corridor,” Richard said. “Besides the one I’m holding, of course.”
“Excuse me for wanting to live,” Barkis snarled.
“All of us would have rather died than join forces with this Queen,” Richard snapped back. “And was killing poor Emily just ‘wanting to live?’”
“You are such a horrible person,” Victoria said, gesturing with her poker. “How my parents could have even considered marrying me off to you. . . .”
“Well, begging your pardon, but your parents aren’t particularly nice people themselves,” Richard said, tipping his hat with his free hand.
“Yeah, we met them just before Alice blasted her way in here,” Marty added. “Had a hard time believing they were your parents. Which I guess they’ve been getting a lot, because your dad said right away you weren’t adopted.”
Victoria couldn’t help the giggle that escaped her. “Well, considering everything, I suppose one has to wonder. . . .” Then she sighed. “And I know that, Richard, but I’d like to think they care enough about me not to want to see me dead.”
“Absolute minimum of caring about your children, but I suppose one must take what they can get,” Sir Christopher grumbled, looking grumpy. “All right, now – to find Alice or Emily first?”
“Emily,” Richard said promptly. “Alice can take care of herself, but Emily surely needs our help. I – I can’t imagine what – no, scratch that, I can--”
“She’s got to be all right,” Victoria cut him off, not wanting to hear what he could imagine. Her own imagination was working double time on that score – she didn’t need anyone giving it help. “She’s got to be. She’s a lot t-tougher than people give her credit for.”
“Yes, but there’s so many horrible things in here, and if the Queen’s made an example of her. . .”
“Don’t say it, don’t say it--”
The dog’s ears suddenly perked up, and he tugged on Doc’s sleeve, pointing down the hall. Doc turned to see a shifting shadow moving toward them. “Brace yourselves everyone – we’ve got company,” he said, raising his rifle and sighting down the scope. The others turned, quickly getting themselves into battle-ready positions.
The movement quickly proved to be – “Butterflies?” Marty said, arching an eyebrow. “How’d butterflies get in here?”
No answer was forthcoming. The group watched in puzzlement as a huge rabble of butterflies fluttered into the hall, forming a large cloud not too far from where they were standing. They were very pretty butterflies, too – dark blue, with long curled feelers. Quite out of place in the horrorland that Looking-Glass House had become. As the group stared, the butterflies drew closer and closer together, brushing and bumping up against each other. Then, there was a funny moment where the insects suddenly seemed to melt, running together in a mass of blues and blacks –
And then, out of nowhere, Emily stood before them, with a rather shell-shocked expression on her face. “Bloody hell, it worked.”
“Emily!” Richard practically threw Barkis at Doc, who managed to catch him without falling, and ran to embrace her tightly. “Oh, I was so worried about you! How are you, sugar lump? Are you hurt? You’ve lost your shoes! And how long have you been able to do that?!”
“I’m fine,” Emily said, smiling brightly as she threw her arms around Richard. “And I lost my shoes a while back. And. . .” Her smile faded. “That’s – that’s new.”
“I should say!” Victoria said, eyes wide. “Goodness, Emily, what happened to you?”
“When did you learn the trick of – metamorphosis, I think?” Sir Christopher said, looking at his fellow scientists.
“Don’t look at me, I deal solely in things made of metal,” Doc said, keeping a tight grip on the struggling Barkis. “Emily, you’ll have to enlighten us on what’s happened. What sort of experiment produced that effect?”
“I – I don’t know, it’s – I--” Emily bit her lip and looked at the others with wide, fearful eyes. “It’s – it’s Victor, he--”
“Oh, has the Queen started the fun without me?” Barkis asked, curious.
Everyone in the group felt their blood run cold. “What plans,” Doc started, eyes narrowing and grip tightening even further on the lord, “does your Queen have for Victor?”
Barkis stopped squirming and winced. “She – for some reason, she thinks he’s handsome, and she wants to – put him into the proper shape, let’s say. . . .”
The others let that sink in for a moment. “Alice is definitely going to kill her,” Flint finally said, slapping his candlestick against his hand.
“Not if we get to her first,” Marty growled. “Or maybe we’ll leave her the Queen and instead get Victor – where is he, Emily?”
“Back down that way, but I can’t be sure where exactly – it’s rather disorienting, traveling as butterflies,” Emily confessed, rubbing her head.
“We’ll find him – Gromit here can help sniff him out,” Doc said, hefting his rifle with his free hand. “And then we’ll free him from whatever the Queen’s done to him--”
“I THINK NOT!”
Everyone started as the voice boomed out all around them. “I HAVE BEEN SUFFICIENTLY AMUSED BY YOUR ANTICS,” the Queen’s voice continued. “TIME TO GET RID OF YOU BEFORE YOU CAUSE ANY REAL DAMAGE! EXECUTIONER! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”
“Oh good, the Executioner!” Richard said. “I’ve been wanting to have a chat with him!”
“Oh, he’s not really much for talking,” Barkis smirked. “But you can attempt conversation if you want. I’d find it highly amusing to see you mown down by him while you prattle on about tea.”
“Well then, if that’s the case, perhaps I’ll just introduce him to Kaboom Tea first thing.”
“Executioner?” Emily repeated, frowning deeply. “God, I hope he’s not like that monster that was guarding Victor.”
“What monster?” Doc said, instantly alert. “And how did you get past him?”
“Sheer luck both times. He’s this gigantic Card Guard with--”
There was a sudden wet sucking sound nearby. All heads turned to see a large, gaping wound tearing open in the wall. And through that wound was emerging – “Oh God, that!” Emily shrieked, pointing at the creature tearing its way into the hall. “That’s what was guarding Victor! That’s the Executioner?!”
“Holy shit,” Marty whispered, taking in the thing’s massive size, squirming tentacles, and very sharp scythe.
“Precisely,” Doc said weakly.
The Executioner pulled his foot free of the wound and stood in front of them, letting out a roar. “My God, Victor threw a Jackbomb into the face of that thing?” Sir Christopher said. “And I thought my battle against the Jabberwock was brave.”
“Toothless?” the young man astride the dragon said, looking down. “Want to give this guy a proper greeting?”
Toothless whuffed and nodded. The man slid off, and the dragon bounded to the front of the crowd. “Everyone back up,” Flint said, holding out his arms. “This could get nasty.”
Everyone obligingly pulled back to the other end of the hall. The Executioner looked curiously down at the black creature in front of him. “Grr?”
Toothless growled back, then took a deep breath. Victoria had just enough time to wonder what he was doing when he released a brilliant-green fireball straight at the Executioner. It hit the Executioner straight on, exploding into a brilliant burst of light. Beside her, Emily clapped. “Aha! That should – do. . . .”
Her voice trailed off. The Executioner – was perfectly fine. There was perhaps some light singing to his costume, but that was all. Toothless gaped in a way that would have been quite comical had they not been in mortal danger. “LEWIS’S FIREPROOFING COMPOUNDS WERE RATHER USEFUL, I’LL GIVE HIM THAT,” The Queen’s rather smug voice said. “NOW, EXECUTIONER, KILL THEM ALL!”
The Executioner laughed and started advancing, swinging his scythe. “RUN FOR IT!” Sir Christopher cried, seizing Victoria’s wrist and pulling her along with him. Victoria hurried to keep up, trying not to think of blades ripping through skin and bone while that creature behind them laughed and laughed. . . .
Barkis chortled and dug his heels into the floor as Doc tried to follow the others. “Oh no! I want to see him sever the useless heads from your bodies! I want to witness this final triumph!”
“You are a moron!” Doc yelled at him, trying to drag him along.
“No, you are! Did you really think that you could face up against this Queen? She’ll have this city sooner or later!” Barkis pulled free of Doc and ran to the Executioner, grinning. “Well, it’s good to see--”
Again, the look on Barkis’s face might have been comical if they hadn’t been in such peril. The lord fell to the floor, wide-eyed, with his chest cut open and pouring blood. “IDIOT!” the Queen’s voice screeched as the Executioner looked down at his handiwork. “NOT HIM! HE WAS USEFUL!”
“That’s what you get when you say ‘kill them all’ to something that’s still in essence from Wonderland,” Doc muttered, turning and running after the others. “Good riddance, really.”
“Just what he deserved,” Richard agreed, looking back at the scene. “Of course, now I’m worried that the Queen will have the idiotic idea to try and bring him back. Which would be amusing in an ironic way, given what happened to Emily, but do we really want to deal with him again?”
“How about we deal with the thing that’s chasing us first?!” Marty snapped as they rounded a corner. “Shit, what the hell are we going to do? If dragon fire can’t stop that thing--”
“We’ll think of something!” Doc said, turning briefly to fire a shot. He had no illusions it would stop the Executioner, but maybe it would slow him down for half a second. “We’re Touched, aren’t we?”
“Not all of us, but I think we’ve got a nice representative sample,” Sir Christopher said, looking around. “Any of you do your best thinking on the run? Gromit?”
The dog shook his head, eyes wide and ears trailing behind him as he ran alongside Toothless and the Vikings. “Come on, Hiccup – we’ve done the stupid, let’s get with the crazy!” the blond-haired Viking girl said, poking the young dragon-rider in the side.
“That was the crazy! I’m not used to having problems that Toothless can’t solve anymore! And it’s not like any of us have any tools, or anything we can build with! Unless – Flint, please tell me--”
“Sorry – I woke up here without the remote,” Flint said, sighing. “Either she’s got it, or I dropped it when she knocked me silly. Really hoping it’s the latter, because giving control of the FLDSMDFR to this Queen is probably just asking to have the world destroyed by giant food.”
“On the other hand, that might be preferable to her taking over the world her way,” Richard commented. “At least being flattened by a giant pancake is a delicious death.”
“I don’t want to die at all!” Victoria cried. “I survived everything else this horrible house has thrown at me, haven’t I? I’ve fought off Snarks and screaming monsters and all sorts of other things with just a poker! I think that means I ought to live!”
“And I’ve already died!” Emily agreed. “I’m not eager to repeat the experience!”
There was a loud explosion in the wall to their left, bringing everyone up short. “Oh, what now?” Richard demanded, spinning to face the wall and raising a hand. The tip of his index finger popped open. “I’m warning you--”
“There you people are!”
Alice climbed through the hole she’d blasted. “So nice to see you again,” she said, taking in the group. “I see you’ve found everyone but Victor.”
“I know where he is,” Emily said, playing with her skirt nervously. “You’re – you’re not going to like it--”
“Conversation later, running now,” the blonde woman said, tugging on Emily’s arm as she went ahead. “Maybe we can lose him--”
She yelped as a wall of tentacles burst out of the ceiling before her. “Oh, you bastards again?!”
“Don’t attack it, Astrid, it’ll just steal your weapon!” Emily warned, pulling the woman back before she could start swinging with her axe.
“Think those are fireproof, Hiccup?” Flint asked, as Gromit made a disgusted face at the writhing “fence.”
“The ones outside weren’t, but I can’t be sure – and having Toothless try something this close to everybody else--”
Gromit’s ears suddenly snapped straight up. He spun around and pointed behind them. “I don’t think we’re gonna get the chance to find out,” Marty said weakly, as the Executioner appeared behind them.
Alice snarled at the huge Card Guard. “Oh, you again. We have a score to settle,” she said, advancing to the front of the group.
“Alice, no! You can’t hurt it! We tried!” Victoria yelled, grabbing her arm.
“We’ll see about that,” Alice said, pulling something out of her pocket. “This should work just long enough – the rest of you, stay behind me!”
The Executioner was advancing slowly now, scythe held ready to swipe. He seemed to smirk at Alice, as if daring her to try something. Alice glared back at him, before stuffing what looked like a few pieces of cake down her gullet. The Executioner chuckled (or, at least, growled in a semi-friendly manner), advanced another few steps –
And suddenly, Alice shot up, breaking through the ceiling as she grew to at least three times the size of the abruptly-less-than-giant Card Guard. The Executioner’s jaw fell open as he stared up at her, his scythe dropping from his hands. Alice smirked down at him. Then she lifted one foot and brought it down with a resounding BOOM.
There was a terrible crunching noise, and blood splattered the walls. When she lifted her boot, the crumpled form of the Executioner lay still on the floor. It was blindingly obvious he would not be getting up again. “Hooray!” Richard cried, throwing his hands up in glee. “Now, stomp your way over to that Queen and NO ONE TOLD YOU TO SHRINK!”
It was too late, though – Alice was suddenly back to normal size, holding a hand over her mouth as she burped. “Sorry,” she said. “The only batch I found was defective. Good for a minute and no more.” She glared at the Executioner’s mangled body. “And I’m not sorry I used it on him.”
“When it comes to it, neither are we,” Doc admitted. “Thank you. Now, we’d better--”
“MY EXECUTIONER! MY BEAUTIFUL EXECUTIONER! HOW DARE YOU?!”
The forest of tentacles behind them thrashed into new life. Victoria shrieked as one wrapped itself around her body, pinning her arms to her side. Sir Christopher tried to hack at the offending appendage, only to have the same happen to him. “Christopher!” she cried, struggling in vain against the tentacle’s tight grip.
“Emily!” Richard yelled, as another wrapped itself around his girlfriend. He snatched her hand, only to have it snap off at the wrist. Moments later, he too was wrapped tightly in pink. “Put me down, you--”
“Aahh! Doc!” Marty cried, ducking under one tentacle only to be snagged and held upside-down by another. Doc tried to fire on the limb, only to have his rifle swatted out of his hands. Another tentacle grabbed him before he could even think of getting it back. “Oh shit. . .”
More tentacles snapped out with terrible speed, snatching up the others. Toothless almost managed to slip free, biting at the ones that came near – but then one managed to wrap tightly around his mouth, and he was immobilized just as well as the others. “I SEE NOW – IF YOU WANT SOMETHING DONE RIGHT, YOU’LL HAVE TO DO IT YOURSELF!” the Queen said, as the tentacles began pulling them back to wherever it was they’d come from.
“Oh God oh God oh God,” Emily whimpered, tears trickling down her face.
“Why the hell doesn’t she just squeeze us and get it over with?” Marty mumbled, still struggling.
“Don’t give her ideas!” Flint cried, eyes wide.
“No, I think this Queen has a theatrical bent,” Doc muttered, glaring at the mass of pink dragging them along. “She’ll want to see our faces when we die. Which gives us time to come up with a plan.”
“What plan? What can we do now?” Victoria demanded. “We’re going to die, and there’s n-no way around it! You know that, don’t you?”
“Nobody’s going to die,” Alice said, her voice cold and calm. “She’s taking me right where I want to be.”
“I’d like to know how you plan to use any of those weapons you’ve still got,” Victoria snapped, knowing it was rude and not caring. She felt she could be a little rude at the end of her life.
Alice just grinned. “You’ll see. Oh, you’ll see.”
Before long, the group had been dragged to the center of the house. Richard moaned as he looked at the flesh on the walls, dripping fluids and beating to the rhythm of some unseen heart. “Oh, this used to be such a nice place. . .”
“I think it’s even nicer now,” a cruel female voice said. Everyone was rotated so that they were facing a terrible throne, upon which sat a vaguely female figure. Masses of pink tentacles extended from where her legs should have been, either writhing free or joining up with the walls. The rest of her was humanoid, though a white, ever-grinning mask covered her face. She peered at them through it. “So, these are the warriors who thought they could take me down. Look at you all. How pathetic.”
“We killed quite a few of your monsters,” Marty snapped.
The Queen waved a hand. “Easily replaced. My destiny is clear. This city will be mine. And you all – well. Maybe not all of you will see it, but – I could always use spare parts. . . .”
“I’m surprised you’d even deign to touch us, Your Majesty,” Alice said, sarcasm dripping off every word.
The Queen’s eyes narrowed as she turned to Alice. “You,” she said, and disgust colored every syllable of the word.
“Me,” Alice nodded. “I haven’t the slightest idea what it is you have against me, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the long run.”
“No, it doesn’t, because there isn’t going to be a long run,” the Queen snarled. “I’m going to crush you.”
“I – think – not,” Alice grunted, working one arm free of the tentacle.
“No? What are you going to do with one arm?”
Alice smirked, holding up a little bottle. “This.” She downed the liquid inside.
Moments later, she suddenly disappeared. The Queen, startled, yanked back her tentacle. “What--”
Alice reappeared with a hiccup, smirking. “You really shouldn’t have left those last bottles of Drink Me around,” she noted, pulling her knife and promptly slashing the tentacle that had held her. Her eyes narrowed, and her face hardened. “Let’s play.”
The Queen glared back. “Let’s.”