Red Riding Hood
It was only a short walk to the girl’s house from where they were, but it was long enough to leave them all thoroughly soaked. The boys were both shivering a little as they arrived. “I hope you have a good, strong fire going,” Marty commented as they approached the front door of the little cottage.
The girl shook her head. “I never light the fire unless I’m sure I can keep an eye on it every second,” she said, unlatching the door. “But I’ll start one as soon as we’re in.”
Inside was dry, if a little cold. The girl picked up a nearby candle and lit it, providing a faint source of light. The boys looked around as they came in. The house consisted of one solitary room – smaller than even the house Marty had grown up in. There was a bed shoved into the far corner, and a fireplace with a cauldron against the far wall. Nearer to them was a table with a couple of chairs. On the wall by the bed were a couple of wolf pelts, and two iron pegs on which to hang an axe. Right by the door was a peg, which the girl used to hang her cloak. Underneath was a blue dress with a white apron. Her face, briefly lit by the candle, was a bit pale and worn, framed by long, very dark auburn hair and dominated by a pair of emerald green eyes. “You can set your things down there,” she told Marty, before moving over to the fireplace.
Marty did so, and he and Victor waited by the door as she tended the fireplace. It didn’t take long before a crackling fire filled the hearth, bringing some more light into the room and warming the air a bit. “Feel free to get out of those wet clothes, if you wish,” she said, stripping off her apron. “You can hang them by the fire.” Then she smirked at them. “Or throw them on it, if you prefer.”
Marty smirked back as Victor turned pink. “I think we’re good.” He moved closer to the fire, warming his hands on it. After a moment’s hesitation, Victor joined him. “I’m Marty, by the way,” he introduced himself. “Marty McFly.”
“I’m Victor Van Dort,” Victor followed suit.
The girl remained silent for a moment, hanging her apron on a nearby chair. “Alice Liddell,” she said once she was done.
“Nice to meet you,” Marty said with a smile. He looked around the cabin again. “Do you live here all by yourself?”
“Yes.” Alice went over to the wall of pelts and hung up her axe, then retrieved a stone from a small table nearby and brought it over to the fireplace along with her knife. She sat down on the floor and began to sharpen it, the blade making a terrible scratching noise as it ran over the stone. “There hasn’t been anyone else here for years.”
“Huh. Must get lonely.”
Victor eyed the pelts hung on the wall. “And – and you h-hunt the wolves?” he said, attempting to keep the conversation going.
“If they’ve been making trouble, yes.”
Victor nodded a little. “I’ve h-heard they’re vicious creatures.”
“They’re not vicious. They’re desperate.”
Victor and Marty both looked up from the fire. “I beg your pardon?” Victor said, puzzled.
Alice looked over at them, the firelight casting strange shadows across her face. “Under normal circumstances, wolves don’t care to bother humans,” she explained with eerie calm. “They’ve learned we have guns and swords that can hurt them, and besides, they prefer hunting their natural game anyway. But things have changed. The woods are filled with monsters now – terrors from the depths of Hell and beyond. They’ve been ravaging the woods – the deer and rabbits are nearly gone. The packs are starving – that’s why they went after you.” She returned to her sharpening. “Just be thankful it was merely wolves I had to help save you from.”
Victor swallowed and looked back at the fire. “Goodness,” he whispered.
“What do you live on, then?” Marty asked, curious. “I assume you ate the rabbits and deer too.”
“Not as much lately,” Alice confessed. “But I have vegetables growing nearby. I can take care of myself – I’ve been doing it for a good long while.” She glanced up again. “Are you talking of food because you’re hungry?”
There was a growl from Marty’s stomach at that. Marty laughed. “I wasn’t, but I guess my body has other ideas. How about you, Victor, could you stand something to eat?”
“I suppose,” Victor admitted. Turning to face Alice, he continued, “Though I’d h-hate to impose on you--”
“Technically, you already have,” Alice interrupted, though she smiled a bit to show him she was joking. “You have to spend the night here anyway. The least I can do is feed you.”
“We’ve got food too,” Marty said, going over to his sack and opening it up. “I’ve got bread and some cheese – and there’s that leftover apple from before. Okay if she gets it, Victor?”
“Certainly,” Victor nodded. Giving Alice a smile in return, he added, “The least we can do is share.”
“That’s fine with me,” Alice said, finishing her sharpening and getting to her feet. “Let me see what I have. . . .”
What she had was some tomatoes and lettuce in her cupboard, along with some bacon she’d purchased on her last supply run. They made sandwiches with those and Marty’s bread, which were quickly devoured. Afterwards, they sat quietly for a while, Victor and Marty drying themselves out by the fire while Alice ate the spare apple. Finally, Marty turned toward the corner. “So, who gets the bed tonight?”
Victor looked at it too. “Surely it’s not right to deprive a lady of her sleeping place,” he murmured.
“I’m sure it is not, but I’m no lady,” Alice said, overhearing. “Either of you is welcome to take it. I never sleep in it anyway.”
“No?” Marty took another look at the bed. “Well, that’s too bad. It looks like a really nice bed.”
“Take it, then.”
Marty turned to face Victor. “Want to flip a coin for it?”
Victor smiled. “Let’s see how soft it is first,” he joked, going over and laying a hand on the mattress.
What happened next took both Marty and Alice by surprise. Victor jerked his hand away from the bed, recoiling violently. He stumbled over his own feet and fell, knocking over a nearby chair. Both he and the chair hit the floor with a loud thud. Victor remained there, sitting up halfway, eyes fixed on the bed. Marty and Alice stared at him for a moment. “I’ve never seen anyone get the shudders from a bed,” Marty finally said, looking both confused and disbelieving.
“Are you all right?” Alice said, frowning.
Victor didn’t reply for a minute, his attention still locked on the bed. Finally, he swallowed and said, in a trembling whisper, “W-who was s-she?”
“She?” Marty said.
“The old w-woman who – w-who--” Victor stopped, his voice failing him.
Alice’s eyes went wide with shock. Then, abruptly, they narrowed into suspicious slits. “How did you know?”
“Huh? How’d he know what?”
Alice ignored Marty, advancing on Victor. “I burned the original bedding. I tore the old mattress to shreds. I aired out the cabin until even I couldn’t smell the stink of blood anymore. I scrubbed that floor until it shone. I made absolutely certain there wasn’t a single sign left of what happened. So--” She leaned down over him, eyes fiery. “How did you know?”
“It doesn’t matter!” Victor cried, meeting her eyes with his own wide, distressed ones. “It wouldn’t matter if you’d turned the frame into kindling, if you’d burned down the entire cabin! I’d still see it!”
“Excuse me!” Victor and Alice looked up to see Marty standing beside them, arms crossed and a scowl on his face. “Somebody want to explain things to the guy who doesn’t have any idea what’s going on?”
Alice stood up straight. “Two people died in that bed,” she said, pointing at it almost accusingly. “I was one. My grandmother was the other.”
“. . . You’re the liveliest dead person I’ve ever met.”
Alice grunted, deep in her throat. “I got better.” She glared at Victor again. “That still doesn’t explain how you know.”
“I – I always s-see it w-when someone dies like t-that,” Victor whispered. “I c-can’t help it. I wish I could. . . .”
Marty tilted his head, curious. “You can see death? Where it’s been?”
“It’s he, f-from what I know.”
Alice frowned at him. “You’re acting as if you know the Reaper.”
“Know him?” Victor smiled thinly, humorlessly. “He’s my godfather.”
There was a moment of silence. “How does the Grim Reaper end up being anyone’s godfather?” Marty finally asked, scratching his head. “I mean – he’s Death. Doesn’t that mean he can’t be a godfather?”
“Tell that to my parents.” Victor sighed deeply and finally got to his feet. “Should I tell you the whole story?”
“If you would,” Alice said. “I’m just as confused as Marty.”
“Explanations would be nice,” Marty agreed.
“All right.” Victor indicated for them to sit, which they did. “It all started the night I was born. My mother apparently had a hard p-pregnancy, and they weren’t sure if she or I would survive. They were so worried about it, in fact, that they completely forgot about finding me any godparents. When I was born healthy and hale, my father rushed out into the night to find me a godfather. He told me he was in such a hurry that he forgot his glasses, meaning that when he encountered the dark, cloaked figure on the road, he didn’t recognize him as the Grim Reaper. Father was so desperate that he petitioned the ‘man’ right there and then to act as my godfather.” Victor shook his head. “I’ll never know why the Reaper acquiesced to his request. But he did. He came to the church and stood as my godfather, and promised my parents that, when I came of age, he’d give me a great gift. Then he departed.” He leaned on the table. “My childhood was normal enough, I suppose. I grew up well-cared for because of our riches, though I never had many friends. I learned to draw and play piano, and I spent much of my time chasing after various insects in our garden. I – I was happy enough. And I had no idea who my godfather was. Mother and Father probably didn’t want to frighten me.” He smirked, briefly. “Regular life did enough of that on its own.”
“So when did you find out?” Marty asked, leaning forward slightly.
“Well, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, Mother and Father told me I was due a visit from my godfather soon, and not to be frightened when he arrived. I didn’t think much of it at the time – I was too busy worrying over the possible arranged marriage they were working on for me with the daughter of the local viscounts. But at the stroke of midnight on my eighteenth birthday, my godfather came to congratulate me. I was – m-more than a little startled to see the Grim Reaper himself in my room. He explained the situation, and proceeded to give me my gifts. The first of which was the ability to see him, and wherever he had been. If he had ever been to a place, ever attended a death somewhere, I would know.” There was a pause. Then Victor looked at them –
And smiled. A smile that was just a hint too bright, a bit too cheery, to be truly sane. “Do either of you know how many insects die in the average house?”
Both Marty and Alice shook their heads. “Millions. Millions upon millions. And then there’s the regular vermin, and the pets, the beasts of burden, the children, the adults, the elderly. . . . And I saw it all. He attends, in some way, every death, so I saw every. Last. One.” The smile vanished, to be replaced by a haunted, exhausted look as Victor slumped against the table. “My parents f-found me on my k-knees by my bed, s-screaming for it to stop.”
Alice looked horrified. “Oh, Victor. . . .”
“What happened afterward?” Marty asked, merely looking curious.
“I’m n-not entirely sure,” Victor confessed. “The death around me d-drowned out my senses, my m-mind. I w-wandered around in a d-daze for months, u-unable to see anything except d-death all around me. S-sometimes I even saw the ways people could d-die in the future, and if t-they had e-escaped death in the past.” He looked at the floor. “I v-vaguely remember trying to c-claw out my eyes once, wishing not to s-see it anymore. . . .” He shook his head and looked back at them. “After months of trying, I finally m-managed to control it. I still know of all death, but it’s all m-mixed up into this dull roar at the b-back of my mind. It’s the only w-way I can deal with it.”
“But – why did my grandmother’s bed make you react like that, then?” Alice asked softly.
“Because a death as violent as that, I simply can’t block,” Victor said in a defeated tone. “It forces itself on me. I also can’t go near graveyards – the sheer a-amount of death is enough to c-completely overwhelm me. I learned that the hard way.”
Marty ran his fingers through his hair thoughtfully. “You said gifts before,” he suddenly said. “What was the other one? Or other ones?”
“Just the one,” Victor said. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small vial of a brilliant green liquid that glowed faintly. “He also gave me this. It’s a curing potion – it can heal any injury and cure any disease. All I must do is look to see if Death is at the head or foot of the person I’m treating. If he’s at the head, the wounds are mortal, and there’s nothing I can do. If he’s at the foot, I merely have to have the patient drink some of the potion, and within minutes, they’ll be well again.” Victor tucked the vial away again with a humorless chuckle. “I think he thought I’d become a doctor. Of course, being around any sort of hospital can be as bad as a graveyard, so. . . .”
“You’ve never used it, then?”
“Actually, I have. Once. Do you remember how I said there was some ‘unpleasantness’ in my hometown? After I recovered my senses, I kept well away from the rest of the world, afraid of having to see more death without being able to stop it. The rest of the town was content to let me hide away – they all thought me completely mad. Needless to say, my engagement was very conclusively canceled.” Victor leaned on the table again. “Then, about a month ago, the greengrocer’s child got very ill. The regular doctors could do nothing for the boy. I felt sorry, and decided I ought to use my gift for good. So I paid a visit, and watched for my godfather. He appeared at the boy’s feet, so I fed him some of the potion. Soon, he was well again. For once, I actually felt happy about using my powers.”
“But that’s good!”
Victor shook his head. “The town didn’t think so. The boy openly said I’d used some sort of magic to heal him. And, quite unfortunately, a few of the deaths I’d foreseen had come to pass. It didn’t take much time at all for the pastor to denounce me as a witch. An angry mob stormed my parents’ house that afternoon, intending to take me and – they seemed divided on whether to hang me or burn me at the stake. But they certainly wanted me dead. I was making toast when the carriage driver, Mayhew, came to warn me. He rushed me out of the house right then and there – that’s why I have the fork – and into the nearby woods, telling me to run and keep running until I came to the next town. So I did. I’ve been running ever since.”
“Ungrateful assholes,” Marty muttered, scowling. “What is it with people not liking anyone who’s different?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Alice said softly, staring up at Victor with watery eyes. “Oh, Victor, I’m so sorry for you.”
“It’s all right – I’ve h-had a year to get used to it.” Victor bit his lip as he looked at her. “I feel sorry for you. What I saw when I touched that bed. . . .”
“I’ve had seven years to get used to it,” Alice replied, sighing. “You needn’t worry yourself.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just what I do.”
“What’s your story then?” Marty asked, turning to her. “I mean, if you feel like telling it. I’m just wondering.”
“I suppose I should explain why I’m out here all alone,” Alice admitted, glancing toward the bed with a little shudder. “But you’ll have to tell us your story once I’m through.”
“I’ve heard some of it,” Victor said as he changed places with Alice. “You may not believe him at first, but I assure you, he’s telling the truth.”
Alice looked quite puzzled at this. “I take it he has a very interesting tale for us.”
“More just confusing for anyone who isn’t me, but we’ll get to that later,” Marty said, waving a hand dismissively. “So, what happened to you?”
“Quite a bit, I’m afraid.” Alice sighed again, then stood in front of the boys. “I didn’t always live here in the woods. I used to live in Oxford when my parents were alive – have either of you heard of it?”
Marty shook his head, but Victor looked rather thoughtful. “I have. Father sent fish there all the time.”
Alice nodded. “My father was a well-respected schoolteacher there.” She smiled a bit. “It was a lovely place to live. I used to go exploring in the fields, chasing rabbits into their dens and searching for fish in the river Thames. Mum and Dad rather doted on me, as I was their only child. We were all quite happy together.” Her smile faded. “Then came the fire.”
“Fire?” Marty repeated. “This have anything to do with you not having one when we came back here?”
“Oh yes,” Alice said, turning her head to almost glare at the flames crackling in the hearth. “I don’t know how it happened, but a few months before my eighth birthday, our house caught fire in the middle of the night.” She lowered her eyes, a look of deep grief on her face. “I was the only one who made it out alive. Mum and Dad – were trapped in their bedroom.”
“That’s awful,” Marty said, wincing. He’d been burned once or twice before – he knew it was painful.
“We’re so sorry for your loss,” Victor agreed.
Alice nodded again, taking a moment to collect herself. “I lost everything from my home that night, except my nightgown and my beloved rabbit doll.” She pointed to a little stuffed rabbit sitting on a nearby shelf. “I took it hard. I spent months in a hospital before I could really – come to terms with it all. But then my grandmother came and took me to live with her here.” She managed another, smaller smile. “I still missed my parents terribly, but I had her, at the least. She did her best to keep me happy. I was content enough, for a while.”
She paused for a few moments then, apparently wrapped up in her memories. “Then?” Marty prompted.
“It happened when I was ten and a half. Grandmother sent me outside to play while she rested – she had a bit of a cold. I thought I would pick her some flowers to cheer her up. I searched out all the prettiest blooms, bound them into a bouquet, brought it home – and my grandmother wasn’t there.”
“Just the leftover blood on the mattress?” Marty asked.
Alice chuckled coldly. “If only. Something that looked just like my grandmother was sitting in her place in the bed. I knew it wasn’t her, though. The eyes were all wrong. My grandmother had the sweetest blue eyes you had ever seen. This – this thing had blue eyes, but they were as sharp and cold as the steel of your sword. I didn’t know what had happened to my grandmother, but I just knew the creature wearing her shape wasn’t her.
It bid me come closer, so it could hold me tight and smell my pretty flowers. I was young, and afraid, and hopeful of somehow saving my grandmother. So I demanded it tell me where she was, and why it sat in her place. It claimed to be my grandmother, but I grabbed the knife off the table--” She picked up the knife she’d laid aside before “–and threatened it. It just laughed at me – a horrid sound, like iron pokers and fire tongs ratting down a chimney. I decided I had to run again.” She squeezed the handle of the knife. “I never made it to the door. Before I could take more than a few steps, the creature transformed into a huge, monstrous wolf, and swallowed me in one gulp.”
“Oh, so that’s where you ‘died,’” Marty said, nodding his understanding. “But obviously you got out. Did he spit you back up again for tasting bad?”
“Would have been kinder than what actually happened,” Victor said, looking like he was resisting the urge to crack a smile at the quip.
“Most definitely,” Alice said, shaking her head. “I was saved by two things – the first, a local woodcutter stumbling across the cottage and hearing my screams. He burst in the door with his axe at the ready to face the monster. The second was this knife. Demons have different insides than humans. If you’re prepared, you can cut your way out before they digest you. My grandmother didn’t have any way to free herself.” Alice held up the knife, which gleamed in the firelight. “I did. I think it took the both of them by surprise when a ten year old girl slashed her way out of the monster’s belly, still covered in juices and blood. Fortunately for me, the woodcutter recovered first, and he beheaded the beast.” Alice stared at her knife for a moment. “He took me home with him – cleaned me up, fetched my bunny at my request. He wouldn’t let me return to the cottage. I lived with him and his family for a few years, until I was fourteen. They took care of me as well as they could, but I don’t think any of them really took to me as one of their own. Of course, I never took to them either. I’d play with the others sometimes, but most of my time I spent alone.” She balanced the tip of her knife on her index finger and spun it carefully. “It gave me more time to practice with my knife, and his axe. I was determined to never get caught like that again. I was also determined to never let anyone else suffer because of me.” She suddenly flipped the knife and caught it, moving it down in a slashing motion. Victor jerked his head back automatically. “At fourteen, I felt I was old enough to live on my own, and returned to the cottage. I cleaned up the mess, got some vegetables to grow, and spent my time hunting out the most dangerous beasts of the forest. The woodcutter attended on me for a couple of years, but eventually I think he thought me mad and unable to be ‘saved.’” She looked from Marty to Victor and back. “The locals don’t trust me, you know. They never call me by my proper name. I’m Red Riding Hood, to them. She who kills the beasts. I suppose they’re grateful for my services – they let me buy food from them, after all – but I’ve heard whispers that I’m a witch, or a devil myself, killing off all competition.”
“People are idiots,” was Marty’s opinion.
Alice grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant grin. It stretched across too much of her face and showed far too many teeth. “Precisely. But as I don’t want to see any of them die like my grandmother, I continue to hunt the beasts. They may revile me, but someone has to stop the monsters.”
“We appreciate what you do,” Victor said sincerely.
“There seems to be a lot of monsters in this kingdom lately,” Marty noted, looking thoughtful. “My mom and dad always said that there weren’t nearly as many around when they were kids. It’s like they’re just popping up out of thin air all over the place. Makes you wonder why.”
“I know why.” Alice sat down in front of them. “It’s the Demon Queen.”
“The Queen of Hell, you mean?”
Alice shook her head. “The Queen of Hearts. Our own queen. She’s been dabbling in the black arts for a while now, according to those who have fled her court. Summoning up abominations and making deals with them for ever more power, in return for letting them and their creatures run wild across the kingdom. They say she’s less and more than human, now. And that she won’t stop until she’s utterly destroyed this land and her people.”
“She wouldn’t,” Victor breathed, eyes wide. “What good is a queen without her kingdom?”
“Have you heard the stories about her? Even before she became the Demon Queen, she was bloodthirsty. Constantly ordering executions for the slightest offense. I don’t think she cares if she has a kingdom at all. She just wants power for power’s sake. And if she ends up ruining the world because of it – so be it.” Alice glared at the floor, hand tightening on her knife’s handle again. “If only there was a hero brave enough to kill her.”
Alice and Victor both jerked their heads, startled, as Marty scrambled to his feet. He was grinning brightly, arms spread. “A demon queen who regularly calls up devils and eldritch abominations? That has to teach me fear! And killing her would help the entire kingdom at the same time! I say we do it!”
Alice gawked at him. “I beg your pardon?!” she finally said. “Are you suggesting that we go and slaughter the queen well-known for her murdering ways even before she turned to making deals with demons?”
“Yeah! You’re obviously a fair hand at killing, and I’ve done my share of murdering spooks. And Victor, maybe you can’t fight, but you’ve got that vial. You can help keep us alive.”
“You’re assuming we’ll go along with this,” Victor said, looking utterly gobsmacked. “Marty, there has to be a better way to find out what fear is.”
“I don’t think there is,” Marty said. “I’ve had people trying to teach me for years, and it’s never worked. I bet there’s nothing scarier than a demon queen, though. The folk who have run away say she gives them the shudders?”
“Well – yes,” Alice said, eyeing Marty cautiously. “They say she’d inspire fear in even the most hard-hearted man.”
“Perfect! It’s just what I need!”
“You’re not in the slightest bit worried about this plan?” Alice asked skeptically.
“He doesn’t feel fear,” Victor said, in a rather tired tone. “That’s why he’s out in the world – he’s searching for it.”
“Yeah, and I think I’ve found it,” Marty nodded, excited. “Or at least the best place to go and look for it. And I’d really like you two to come with me. It’ll be an adventure! One that’ll end with all of us heroes!”
Alice looked back at her knife, still in her lap. Her expression hardened. “It was her beasts that killed the last of my family,” she said, voice cold. “I’ve dreamed of sinking this blade into her flesh for years.” She turned her gaze upward. “I don’t know if we’ll succeed, but – when it comes down to it, I want my revenge. And I want to stop her from hurting anyone else.” She got to her feet. “I’ll go with you.”
“Great! What about you, Victor?”
“I – I--” Victor paused, eyes darting between them as he thought things over. Then he sighed. “I’m frightened,” he whispered. “I would like to help you, but – I’m a-afraid I’ll j-just end up hindering you.”
“You didn’t hinder me today,” Marty said encouragingly. “You were actually pretty good against those wolves, for a guy with a toasting fork. And like I said, you’ve got that healing stuff. We won’t make you fight if you don’t want.”
“Think of it this way, Victor,” Alice said, leaning down in front of him. “If you help us, and we do defeat her – it’s so much less death that you’ll have to see.”
Victor looked at her, then at Marty. A determined expression came over his face. “I c-couldn’t leave you two to d-do it alone,” he admitted, getting to his feet. “I’m s-scared out of my w-wits, but I d-don’t want you die, either. Not if I can h-help.”
“That’s the spirit,” Marty said, patting him on the back. “We won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Alice said. Then she gave Victor a hopeful smile. “But we’ll do our best to keep you safe.”
“I promise to do the same.”
“Then it’s settled,” Marty said with a decisive nod. “Tomorrow we’ll head to Gale’s Town, buy some horses, and then it’s off to find the Demon Queen.”
“I think it’ll be a bit more complicated than that,” Alice told him. “Her court is miles away from here.”
“We’ll get there sooner or later,” Marty replied. “And maybe we can get some other people to help along the way.”
“I certainly hope so,” Victor said. “This seems a rather big job for just three people.”
“I believe we’re the only ones who ever conceived of actually doing it,” Alice said. “We’ll just have to wait and see if anyone cares to assist us.” She looked back at Marty with a frown. “Now then, you have to tell us all about this strange affliction of yours. What is this about you not being able to feel fear?”
“I’m not sure myself, but I’ll explain it the best I can,” Marty shrugged. “When I was a little kid. . . .”