“What the hell is wrong with you guys? Get up! Can’t you hear me? Doc, I’m right next to you! Hello!”
Marty prodded his friend a few times in the ribs, then stood back up, regarding the others with a mixture of confusion and annoyance. He had no idea what had happened to them. They’d been fine up until a minute ago. He’d overheard Victor admitting that he wasn’t sure if this quest was actually going to be a success and had started to turn to say that he knew fear was hiding somewhere on this trip, and he was going to find it – when suddenly, Victor had just stopped short, eyes wide as if he’d seen something the rest of them hadn’t. Marty had tried to ask him what was wrong, but Victor hadn’t responded. The tall, skinny young man had just looked around, rifled through his pockets for a moment, then acted like he was being attacked by something. Before Marty could make sense of any of it, Victor was on the ground, curled up in a ball and sobbing his eyes out.
And then Marty had turned to ask his other friends if they knew what had happened – only to find them acting all the same way! Well, sort of. Doc was on the ground too, hands clapped over his ears and eyes shut tight, but he wasn’t crying. It looked like he was trying to protect himself from something. Richard was lying in an awkward position on the leafy floor of the forest, eyes darting left and right, little whimpers coming from his throat. Like Victor, neither he nor Doc responded when Marty tried to ask them why they were acting like that. The only one who’d spoken to him at all was Alice – and she wasn’t exactly being coherent. The only one of his friends still on her feet, she kept darting back and forth between the trees, eyes wide and face white. When Marty had tried to catch her, she’d yelled at him to run and get out, couldn’t he see the place was on fire? And then she’d darted away again before he could say, no, there’s no fire at all, what the hell are you on about?
He watched her run past him again, tears now trickling out of her green eyes. This was frustrating. He knew something had to be attacking his friends – why else would they be acting like this? – but he couldn’t figure out what. He didn’t feel the telltale chill of ghosts, and the forest itself hadn’t changed, from what he could see. . . . So what the hell was it? They couldn’t have all spontaneously gone mad! And he kind of needed them if they were going to fight a dragon!
Marty turned as Emily came crashing through the branches. “You’re still all right!” she gasped as she came up to him. “I – I didn’t know if you would be or not. . . .” Her eyes went to the others. “Oh God, it’s just like with Jennifer and Victoria. . . .”
“They’re acting crazy too?” Marty asked, shaking his head. “I mean, we heard Victoria scream. . . .”
“Yes – it was on us before we could react! Victoria’s trying to hide from what I think are her parents and Lord Barkis – she keeps screaming and running away every time I get close to her. And Jennifer’s acting like she’s stuck in a coffin!”
“Oh, perfect, just perfect,” Marty groaned. “So we’re the only two haven’t gone looney?”
“Yes, but it’s not their fault! That – Marty, it’s back! The Jabberwock is the last giant!”
Before Emily could say anything further, there was a roar above them, and then a huge clawed hand tore away the trees behind the two. Standing in the newly-cleared spot was – well, Marty supposed it was a dragon. It certainly had the basic shape of one – a long, snake-like neck, an equally long tail, eyes like fire, vicious claws on its hands and feet, and green scales all over its flesh. But this one had some strange parts to it. For one thing, its teeth seemed more like a rabbit’s than any proper dragon’s, with two large incisors in the front and nothing else. It also had what appeared to be two antennae extending from the top of its head. Its arms appeared to be nothing but bone covered with skin – it even had gaps in its forearms where the bone split in two. And, rather like Richard, there were a number of body parts on it that were mechanical instead of organic. The lower half of the tail was a few feet of gleaming grey metal, and the wings were completely manmade, with long, rusty brown frames stretching out from the shoulders and covered with a thin grey ‘skin’ of cloth.
All of that, however, was nothing compared to the creature’s peculiar chest. Or, perhaps, lack of chest would be a better phrase. Instead of a normal torso, the dragon had a blazing furnace, held in place by numerous gears and cogs. The barred door glowed almost as brilliant a yellow as the sun, and heat radiated out from it in all directions, chasing away the chill of the day. Between that chest of fire and the fearsome eyes of the same hue, almost any man would cower and weep.
Almost. “Okay, what asshole put you back together?” Marty demanded, drawing his sword. “I’d like to have a long, painful talk with him.”
The Jabberwock frowned down at him, arching the flesh that on a normal human would be home to an eyebrow. “It doesn’t matter who put me back together,” he said, in a voice that boomed and thundered across the landscape. “But why are you not paralyzed by fear and doubt, like the others? I can understand why my power does not work on her--” He indicated Emily with a claw “– but you’re a mere mortal man. You should be lost in the depths of your own deepest terrors, for me to feast on at my will.”
“Oh, is that what happened? Cripes, it’s enough to make you wonder whether it’s worth trying to find the thing,” Marty said, glancing back at his friends. (He couldn’t help but feel a little pang as he saw Alice was now trying to drag Victor off the ground, begging him to come with her and live, and Victor just wasn’t responding at all. Just more proof about how they clearly loved each other, and they were too out of it to see.) “But yeah, I’ve never felt fear in my life. So, um – sorry?”
The Jabberwock’s blazing eyes widened. “Never felt fear? But that’s impossible. All who live as mortals feel fear,” he insisted, lowering his head to get a closer look at Marty. “It is the source of my power. It is what has let me terrorize you mere humans for as long as I can remember. Only the one whom Death has already touched should be immune.”
“If I’ve ever been afraid, I’ve never noticed,” Marty said, glaring back at the dragon. “And I would have liked to – not being able to feel fear has been a real pain in the ass for me. The whole reason I’m out here is so I can learn how to be frightened.”
The Jabberwock snarled. “Then be frightened!”
Marty felt a slight pressure on his temples and against his eyes. “Was that you?”
A pause. “. . .Yes.”
“Didn’t work.” Marty swung his sword, cleaving one of the Jabberwock’s eyes out of its socket. “And I don’t think it’s gonna. Eh, maybe Victor’s right and I just can’t figure out how to get scared. Course, seeing how badly being scared hit them makes me wonder if I should even bother. In the meantime, though, I don’t think you should be allowed to run around and hurt people anymore.” His eyes narrowed. “Especially my friends.”
The Jabberwock roared in pain, grabbing at its injured socket with its hand. “You selfish, misbegotten, unnatural child!” he growled. “You will die under my claws before you have the chance to scream!”
“Yeah, no, don’t think so. Didn’t work out for the last assholes we met, so why should it work for you?” Marty stabbed the Jabberwock’s neck. “And anyway, I just got bitten, bloodsucked, nearly crushed, and had poison spat at me. What can you do to top that?”
The Jabberwock’s response was to straighten to his full height and focus its remaining on Marty’s figure. A beam of bright purple light shot out of it, scorching through Marty’s clothes and into his flesh. “Ow! Okay, jeez, fine, you’ve got some good tricks of your own,” he grumbled, darting out of the light and nursing a burn on his arm.
“Tricks? You persist in insulting me?!” The Jabberwock opened his jaws wide. The fire in its furnace heart seemed to burn even brighter as smoke began to pour from its mouth. “Imbecile! You will--”
A rock smacking into the side of its head interrupted the Jabberwock’s speech. He turned to see Emily there, glaring even as she trembled. “Leave him alone, you – you bully!” she yelled, picking up a heavy branching and throwing it. It broke across the Jabberwock’s nose. “We’ll stop you if it’s the last thing we do!”
The Jabberwock gave her a terrible grin. “As you wish – it will be!” he said, then directed a stream of fire at her. Emily did her best to run, but the train of her dress got caught on a branch. She tried desperately to free it as the flames began licking at her skirt. The Jabberwock laughed and prepared to lunge, intending to take her head off with one bite –
Only to stumble and miss as a white, black, and green blur slammed into his legs. “Richard!” Marty said, darting in close for a chance at slicing the monster’s flesh. “About time, buddy!”
“Sorry I was delayed!” Richard said, popping out his scalpel finger tip and using it to carve into the Jabberwock’s scales. His eyes weren’t quite focusing, but he seemed to be aware enough to attack.
“You?! You have enough flesh on you to be affected by me!” the Jabberwock protested, knocking them both away with a powerful swipe of its tail. “Your brain is as mortal as they come! How can you have clawed out of the depths of your terror and despair?”
Richard glared up at him, teeth clenched. “I may be afraid of being ripped to pieces and left to rot alone in some junk heap,” he hissed. “But I’m more scared of watching you kill the woman I love.”
“Are you? Well then. . . .” The Jabberwock made another lunge at Emily. The corpse bride grabbed a nearby flaming branch and shoved it into the snapping jaws, eliciting another yelp of pain from the monster. She managed to free her skirt and flee the flames crawling up the trees. “Richard, the Ice Wand! We’ve got to put this out before the entire forest catches fire!”
“Right!” Richard kicked the Jabberwock as hard as he could in the leg (and judging by the dragon’s cry, that was very hard indeed) and ran to fetch his pack. He pulled out the Ice Wand and tossed it to Emily, who quickly directed it at the spreading fire, smothering as much of it as she could under a blanket of cold. “Be careful now! Do it in short bursts, that’ll give it a chance to recharge!”
“Fool!” The Jabberwock breathed another gout of flame. “I’ll roast you all alive, despite the efforts of that measly crystal!”
“Not happening!” Marty snapped, stabbing the Jabberwock in the side a couple of times. “You are going to die!”
“And if I don’t?”
“Sorry, buddy, that’s not an option!”
“Reckless, idiot boy! Do you really think you can defeat me?”
Marty saw red. “I sure as hell can, and I’m not an idiot!” He slashed furiously at the Jabberwock’s leg, attempting to sever it.
The mighty mechanical wings flapped, and the Jabberwock took to the sky – though not without a few nasty bruises and some deep, bleeding cuts. “Only an idiot would go up against a dragon so strong and skilled,” the Jabberwock snarled, focusing his eye beam on the teenager again. Marty rolled out of the way. “Only an idiot would attempt to defeat me. And only an idiot would have no idea how to feel fear!”
“Screw you! I’m not an idiot, and my friends and I are going to kill you and stop your reign of terror! Right guys?”
“Right!” Emily said, working to put out the fresh fires the Jabberwock’s flame breath had lit.
“Right!” Richard agreed, though he sounded a little less sure of himself.
The Jabberwock laughed. “Three against one does sound like good odds, doesn’t it?” he mocked them, flying in circles and letting off random blasts of his eye beam, catching Marty once in the side. “But look at you. A dead woman in a bridal gown, a man who’s almost all machine and yet has no ability to use it, and a boy who doesn’t know when he’s beaten. It is to laugh. Better folk than you have gone up against me!”
“And won,” Marty pointed out, glaring up at the dragon. “Weren’t you killed by one of the White Knights?”
The Jabberwock snarled and breathed fire, igniting the tops of the trees. “One of those wretched, worthless knights did get the better of me – once! But never again! Her Majesty the Queen of Hearts has brought me back, and her magic and mechanical skill are greater than anything in this pathetic realm!”
“Wait – the Queen of Hearts was the one to reconstruct you?” Richard repeated, eyes wide. “But that – if that’s not a violation of our nonaggression treaty, I don’t know what is!”
“Do you really think that pathetic piece of paper means anything to a monarch who is used to dealing with the darkest of the dark?” the Jabberwock said, rolling his remaining eye. “She’ll have your country sooner or later. And I’m glad to serve as her right hand.”
“Are you really?” Marty asked, tilting his head.
“Why do you persist in asking question that make you sound like the most foolish of fools?”
“Because I’m actually genuinely curious this time, dickhead,” Marty snapped, frowning. “You’ve been on about how you’re this super-powerful dragon whom nobody could ever defeat – you know, except for that one time – and yet you’re also perfectly happy to be somebody’s – eh, I guess ‘pet’ isn’t the right word. Attack dog? Second in command? You know what I mean, serving somebody else instead of just yourself. You’re honestly cool with that?”
The Jabberwock leveled a look at him that said he didn’t appreciate Marty bringing his status up. “If it were anyone else, no, I would not be ‘cool with that,’” he replied snarkily, shooting his eye beam at the teenager again for good measure. “But the Queen of Hearts is different. She is malicious, cold, and cruel straight to the core of her being. She embraces fear and pain, to the point where my power makes her laugh. Laugh quite musically, in fact. . . .”
“Ooooh, the Jabberwock’s got a crush,” Marty said with a mocking smile, dodging another blast of flame. “How cuuute.”
“Silence! The point is, she and I are cut from the same cloth! And I may be one of the most powerful beings in existence, but even I know better than to challenge the things she’s made deals with. Being her second is better than being dead by miles.”
“All right, all right, I’ll give you that,” Marty nodded. “Most things would have to be better than being dead.”
The Jabberwock eyed them. “Most peculiar child,” he mumbled. “You acknowledge that you don’t want to die, and yet you feel no fear about death itself. It’s as if you were born from the very notion of practicality, coupled with more good humor than any mortal should have.”
“That would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?” Marty nodded again. “But I’m pretty sure my parents are both totally human. Unless the villagers back home are right and I am secretly a changeling.”
“No – I can tell Fae from mortal, and you are most definitely mortal,” the Jabberwock said. “And even if you were one of the Fair Folk sent to live in a human family, you would still have bowed underneath my power.”
“Yeah, well, your power ain’t as great as you think,” Marty said, indicating Richard, who was watching the Jabberwock as it circled above them. “I mean, if at least one guy could fight it off – and hey, there had to be at least two! If that White Knight managed to slaughter you the first time--”
He knew stuff like that got him more blasts from the eye beam, but he didn’t care. It was fun to taunt the Jabberwock, and it seemed to put the dragon off his game a little. Which was a weakness Marty fully intended to exploit at the right moment. “I will tear your flesh asunder, little boy!” the Jabberwock roared. “I will cause you pain so intense you will be begging to be released into the Queen’s care! And I will make sure you do not die before you have seen all that you have cherished, all that you have loved, torn and burned before your very eyes!”
“Oooh, good one! Nobody’s made a threat like that to me before! Usually they’re happy enough with just killing me and that being the end of it!”
“Well, I am a monster the likes of which you’ve never encountered before!” The Jabberwock turned his gaze on Emily, who had almost finished putting out the fires. “And you, woman! You will be returned to your grave in fragments of bone and flesh! No, better yet, I shall spread your atoms across the world, so you may never know true peace! None shall remember your name or your death!” He breathed more fire directly on her – Emily squeaked and flung cold air all around herself, forming a wall of ice that managed to save her from burning before it melted into a large, lukewarm puddle. “And you!” he added to Richard, who was still studying him. “I will rip you into smaller and smaller pieces, and throw them into the most deserted places of the world! And I will save your head for last, so you may watch as I destroy the woman you claim to love! You will all--”
The Jabberwock screamed and fell to the ground, one mechanical wing flying away into the scorched canopy from the force of the explosion. “I am so glad Doc Brown suggested we keep one cup of tea left, just in case!” Richard laughed, looking more himself. “Emily, over here! I think we can use the Ice Wand to put out his furnace!”
Emily darted forward, eyes narrowed, teeth set. “Imbeciles! Depriving me of my flight means nothing!” the Jabberwock snarled, and swung his mighty arms. Both Emily and Richard went flying in different directions. “I am still the strongest creature in this forest! The loss of a wing is barely an inconvenience! Her Majesty shall replace it once I bring your bloated corpses to her court!”
“Hey, quick question – Sir Christopher Lloyd killed you via decapitation, didn’t he? Did the Queen do anything to protect your neck?”
The Jabberwock growled and swung his head around to snap something sarcastic at the teenager – only to realize too late that he’d inadvertently turned his neck right into Marty’s sword. He roared in pain as he jerked his head away, clawing at the deep cut gushing blood. “Guess not,” Marty said with a smirk, and swung hard.
Luck was with him – the blade hit a joint in the neck and cleaved through cleanly. The Jabberwock’s head dropped off, mouth frozen open in shock. The body collapsed a moment later, landing on its side with a dull thud. For a long moment after that, there was nothing but silence.
It was finally broken by Marty looking at the severed head and shrugging. “Guess not. Kind of stupid, if you ask me.”
He glanced around at his friends. Richard and Emily were slowly pulling themselves upright, while the others were blinking and looking around with distinctly confused looks. “Everyone okay?” he asked, kicking the Jabberwock’s head as he went to check up on the others.
“I – I think so,” Victor said, touching the side of his head. “What – what happened? I just – it went all dark, and then. . . .” He looked up to see Alice standing over him, and grabbed her hand, thumb over the veins in her wrist as if he had to make sure she did indeed have a pulse. “It was so c-cold, and I c-couldn’t find any of you. . . .”
“I’d heard the Jabberwock could make a man live his worst fear,” Richard said, trying to free his arm from a bramble. “Of course, I thought that was in the context of, ‘because secretly everyone’s worst fear is having to fight a large, fire-breathing, very talkative and insulting dragon.’ Will you--”
With a loud “POP!” Richard’s arm abruptly detached from his shoulder. He looked at it a moment, then grumbled and turned so he could get a better grip on it with his other arm. “Yes, it would figure that this would happen after we kill the bloody thing. . . .”
“You fought the Jabberwock?” Doc said, pulling himself to his feet with the help of a nearby tree and staring at the body in front of him. “But it’s supposed to be dead! Sir Christopher himself said he’d killed it!”
“Guess whose Queen put it back together!” Marty announced with cheery sarcasm. “And he was a pain in the ass to kill, let me tell you. Wouldn’t shut up, and kept zapping with me with some sort of beam from his eye. . .hey, Victor, can I have some more of the medicine?”
“Of course. . . .” Victor got his feet and shakily handed over the vial. “So – that was the creature who--”
“Obviously he had some sort of ability to make one hallucinate their worst fear,” Doc said, running his fingers through his hair. “Either a defensive measure to keep would-be attackers at bay, or an offensive one designed to make it easier to kill and eat prey.”
“I’m guessing the latter – when he first ran across me, he was all confused about why I wasn’t cringing on the ground like you guys – well, most of you guys,” Marty amended, looking at Alice. “He specifically said ‘feast at my leisure.’”
“Lovely,” Alice muttered, staring at her feet.
“We ought to get back to Jennifer and Victoria,” Emily said, trying to climb over a fallen tree trunk. “I’m sure they – oh!”
She fell over as her skeletal leg suddenly snapped at the knee. Pushing herself up, she glared at the errant limb. “For God’s sake. . . .”
“Isn’t it a pain?” Richard said, popping his arm back on, then hurrying over to help her up and reattach her leg.
“It is – I hope it’s not going to do that often,” Emily said, then looked up at the hatter. “Though – I suppose it’s proof we’re meant for each other.” She turned away, twirling a lock of blue hair around her finger. “Your worst fear was really seeing me – well – dead again? Properly this time?”
Richard nodded, holding her close. “Yes. I know it’s soon, but – I think I knew you were the one from the moment I saw you. Something – clicked. It was like--” He struggled with the words for a moment. “You meant more to me than all the hats and tea in the world.”
Emily giggled – but then frowned. “And – you’re sure it doesn’t bother you that I’m – dead?”
Richard’s response was to release her and pop off his arm again. “So long that it doesn’t bother you that I’m not all organic.”
Emily smiled. “Not in the slightest.”
“Too bad you didn’t do that in front of Jennifer,” Marty said with a grin (and resisting the urge to give Victor and Alice a significant look). “She’d probably think it was adorable. Victoria too. Their heads should have cleared up too now, right?”
“Oh, I would hope. . .but they’re probably worried about us,” Emily said, casting an anxious look in the direction of the road. “We’d better go and see them.”
“Yeah, and see if that stupid Jabberwock ate or scared off our horses,” Marty added, frowning.
“And figure out something to do about the corpse,” Doc said, giving the severed head a kick. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave it lying around if Her Majesty has already resurrected him once.”
“Certainly not,” Alice said, glaring hard at the body of the beast. “That wretched creature – I’d ask how dare she inflict such pain and misery on who knows how many people, except that I already know what a demon she is.”
“I think a good burning would be appropriate,” Richard said, shaking his head. “Though I’m not sure we have the equipment we need at the moment. . . .”
“I think we should set up a camp and stay the night,” Doc said as they moved off back toward where they’d left the horses, Jennifer, and Victoria. “Once the morning comes, I can use my watch’s wish again and wish the body gone forever.”
“Ah, an excellent idea. Thank you kindly, Dr. Brown.”
“Thank you for having the ability to wake up from that trance and actually join in the fight. Not that I doubt your combat prowess in the least, Marty, or your own quick thinking, Emily, but. . . .”
“No offense taken,” Marty assured his friend. “Like I said, he was a pain in the ass. Better three against one instead of just two.” He cocked his head. “I gotta ask, though – what were you seeing, or hearing, or whatever? Richard said straight out his fear was getting ripped to pieces – at least, until the Jabberwock started threatening Emily – I could guess that Alice’s was related to fire, and Victor – well, I thought you were back in Jennifer’s castle, but then you said something about it being dark? I couldn’t figure you out at all though, Doc.”
Doc sighed and looked away. “I – it was like I was a teenager again, and having to deal with my father,” he said. “He was never appreciative of my interests in science, and never lost a chance to berate me. Only this time I couldn’t slip away or fight back. And then my old fiancee joined in, and every other person who considered me somehow ‘lesser’ than them. . .and I simply couldn’t stop them. It’s – less than pleasant to be constantly told you’re insane or a disappointment.”
“Yeah, it sounds like it,” Marty nodded.
“As for me, it was worse than Jennifer’s castle,” Victor said with a shiver. “At least with the castle I had the option of r-retreating inside my mind. I thought I was lost in complete blackness, with naught but mindless dead shades for company. . .never to s-see light or be around l-living people again. . . .”
Alice reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. “I thought the forest was on fire and that I was going to lose everyone again,” she whispered. “I tried to get you to get up and escape with me, but. . . .” She shook her head. “What kind of fears do we have where going mad is the better option?”
“Horrible ones,” Victor said. “I’m s-sorry for upsetting you further in that state.”
“You’re sorry for being lost in your own terrified mind?! Victor, you do indeed apologize too much.”
Before Marty could agree, he was suddenly grabbed in a tight bear hug by a brunette blur. “Marty! Oh, you’re all right! I just – we were waiting for you, and then there was this shadow, and then – I swear to God, I thought I was in a coffin and I’d been buried alive because nobody thought I’d ever wake up and--”
“Emily told me,” Marty said, patting her back. “Jabberwock’s responsible for that, but he’s dead. Me, Richard, and Emily killed him. And we’re gonna camp out here for the night so Doc can wish away the body. That make you feel better?”
“Yes, it does,” Jennifer said, pulling away. Her eyes were red and puffy, her hair tangled, her face pale. “The Jabberwock, though? I thought that thing was dead?”
“Well, it is now. Apparently our Queen decided to bring the bastard back to life after Sir Christopher killed him the first time. Hey, speaking of that, where’s Victoria?”
“Here,” Victoria said, appearing from behind a tree and looking both incredibly shy and deeply embarrassed. “I’m – I’m fine now. Emily, I’m s-sorry for making a scene before--”
“Oh, please, don’t worry about it,” Emily said, going to give her friend a hug. “I know it wasn’t your fault. The Jabberwock was making everyone see their worst fear – everyone except me, because I’m dead, and Marty, because he’s never known fear in the first place.”
“Really?” Jennifer said, staring at her boyfriend. “You saw nothing?”
“Not a damn thing,” Marty grumbled. “I guess whatever voodoo he pulls depends on you having been scared once before. Annoying. . .but on the other hand, if he had gotten me, we’d probably all be dead, so I can’t get too pissed off.”
“Indeed,” Doc said. “I’m just glad he went ahead and saved himself for last, because I am in no mood to fight anything else now.”
“Neither am I,” Alice agreed. “Can we just make camp now and – rest, I suppose? And – without a fire for as long as we can? I’m not in any mood to deal with fire right now, even a controlled one.”
“Understandable,” Doc nodded. “We can use the lanterns instead when it gets dark. And I’m all for taking a rest and getting our heads back together.”
“A good cup of tea might calm us all down,” Richard agreed. “I’ve brought some Earl Grey--”
Almost everyone in the little band froze. “What the--”
“Hey, isn’t that--” Marty started, turning.
Who it was quickly became clear, however, as a figure in white armor, riding a white horse, came galloping up the path toward them. Victoria let out a delighted cry. “Christopher!”
“Victoria!” Sir Christopher Lloyd brought his horse up short and leapt down, opening his arms as she leapt into them. “My dear girl, I was starting to think I’d never see you again!”
“I was beginning to wonder myself!” Victoria kissed him hard. “Oh, I’m so happy to see you! Especially after what we’ve just been through!”
“What have you been through? I was on my way back to White Castle when someone told me they’d heard explosions in the wood nearby,” Sir Christopher said, lifting his head to take in the others.
“Our fault,” Marty said with a smile. “We’ve been killing monsters. You’ll never guess who we just took down. Too bad you didn’t show up earlier, you could have been a real help!”
“I’m going to make everyone some tea, Sir Lloyd,” Richard said, tipping his hat respectfully. “Why don’t you stay and have a cup, and we’ll explain everything with Earl Grey and whatever biscuits and cake are left?”
Sir Christopher smiled. “Sounds like a capital idea.”
“. . .And that was the end of it. Again.”
The White King frowned deeply as he looked at the nine people currently standing before him. “And you said he explicitly told you that his resurrection was due to the Queen of Hearts?”
“All three of us heard it, sir,” Richard said, shifting from foot to foot anxiously. Marty was sure that sooner or later the guy was going to shake right out of his shoes.
“We wouldn’t lie to you, Your Majesty,” Emily agreed.
“I would hope not. When it comes to war, truth comes first. There’s always time for lies later.” The White King pushed up his sagging crown with his scepter. “And we may have war on our hands. The Queen deliberately bringing the Jabberwock back to life and setting it on our kingdom means she does not value our alliance like she said she did.”
“That’s putting it mildly, Your Majesty,” Sir Christopher said, eyes dark. “That’s practically a declaration of war in and of itself.”
“Indeed.” The King looked over Doc, Marty, Jennifer, Victor, and Alice. “You five say you’re on your way to destroy this woman?”
“Oh my dear, as if we wouldn’t help you, after all you’ve done!” the White Queen suddenly interjected.
“Yes, that’s the plan,” Doc said. “And some assistance would be – appreciated,” he added, casting an odd look at the White Queen.
“We dare not move openly right away,” the White King said. “But we can start amassing our armies and prepare for the moment of battle. And we can give you safe passage across our kingdom with our swiftest riders, to bring you as close to Heart Palace as we can take you.”
“You’re welcome!” the White Queen chirped. “And I know you were, that’s why I said it.”
“We were going to say ‘thank you,’” Marty protested – then blinked. “Hang on, how’d you--”
“Why yes, I did design the legal system, why do you ask?” the White Queen interrupted.
There was silence for a moment. “Dear,” the White Queen finally said, nodding at Victor, “if you don’t say anything then we can’t continue the conversation.”
“. . .Are you the one responsible for people being punished before they commit the crime?” Victor asked hesitantly, fiddling with his tie.
“And I don’t care if it’s rude, ‘screwed up’ does kind of sum it up,” Marty guessed.
“Now really, that’s a rather rude colloquial – oh!” The White Queen stared at Marty. “Now that’s not fair!”
“How? I’m just doing the same thing you’re doing.”
“We’re getting off track,” Doc said, waving a hand in an attempt to both ward off laughter and avoid the possible wrath of the White Queen. “At any rate, we thank you kindly for your help. And we promise to make your hospitality toward us fruitful once we reach the Palace.”
“That’s all we can ask,” the White King said. He turned toward the remaining four. “Will you be joining them on their quest?”
“Not immediately,” Richard said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I mean, I’m certainly willing to do all I can to join in the fight, but – well--” He glanced at Emily.
“I think he means that he wants to spend some time with his new girlfriend before going back into danger,” Marty said, ever unafraid of causing embarrassment. “And I bet Sir Christopher feels the same.”
“That’s it precisely,” Sir Christopher admitted, pulling Victoria close.
“I suppose I can’t blame you for that,” the White King said. “And we could probably use you both at home for now, to help gather the troops.”
“Are you sure that’s the girl you met at Count Bonejangles’s ball?” the White Queen asked, apparently a bit sulky about being beaten at her own game.
Victoria and Sir Christopher simultaneously pulled out a glass slipper. Victoria undid her boots and slipped them on, showing them to be a perfect fit. “I do believe that’s all the proof that’s needed, Your Majesty,” Sir Christopher said with a smile.
“Oh, aren’t they lovely!” the White Queen said, quite forgetting to be upset in her admiration. “If only my feet were the right size. . .you’ll have to tell me all about how you got them! And yes, I am, if that’s what it takes,” she added with a smirk to Marty.
“Hey, if you’re prepared to make friends with a Fae,” Marty shrugged and smiled in response.
“All right then – you four shall stay in the Palace and help us coordinate our troops and plan attacks,” the White King proclaimed, indicating Sir Christopher, Victoria, Richard, and Emily. “I know three of you may protest you’re not soldiers, but you’re obviously better at fighting than the average civilian. And there was that business of ‘seven with one blow. . . .’”
“I told you, that was flies,” Richard groaned. “But I’m not opposed to trying to develop a new, stronger tranquilizer, with Your Majesty’s permission.”
“Granted. And you five shall stay here the night, and be off in the morning to continue your mission,” the White King continued, nodding at Doc, Marty, Victor, Alice, and Jennifer. “It should take about three days to reach the border, then perhaps another five days to a week to make the Palace – barring any delays, of course.”
“We’ll do our best to get their on time,” Marty said, saluting.
“Thank you again, for everything,” Jennifer added as the others nodded.
“In these dark times, we must all stick together,” the White King said kindly. “Now, come and refresh yourselves. You still have so much to do, and so little time to do it in.”
“Yeah, but we’ve also got plenty behind us,” Marty said, grinning and lifting his sword. “I think we’re just about ready to take on that Red Queen.”
“I do hope so. Now, our cooks are preparing supper as we speak, so if you’d like to wash up. . . .”