Black Alice

There Once Was a Cat and a Raven-bird

Corbin was, at that moment, overlooking a great ravine. It was the sort of ravine someone looked at and got weak in the knees. Sharp stones covered the ground, which must have been a hundred—no, two hundred—feet below. Corbin, however, wore an expression of disinterest. His cloak of feathers would have seemed to a perceptive eye to be a bit worse for wear, and his handsome Hatter’s hat seemed just a tad more worn. Wind tickled his raven-black locks, but he didn’t so much as blink.

There was a bird’s cry in the distance. Corbin looked down. The motion was so controlled, so silent, his dark eyes darting into the abyss as though chasing something. A flash of color tore through the air, hurtling towards him. In only a piece of a moment, too quick for the eye to follow, Corbin dodged. The streak of color raced by him and came to a sudden stop in a cloud of dust. Corbin’s hat alighted gently on the ground, borne by the breeze. Corbin turned to face the new arrival. It was a great bird, surely the height of two men, with brilliantly colored feathers and a great fetching crest. It regarded him with amused eyes.

“Oh, I’m sorry… didn’t see you there,” it said smoothly, its voice sounding neither male nor female. Corbin smiled in response, but his smile was not genuine.

“It’s been a while,” he said in a friendly sort of manner, though his eyes showed a strange sort of detachment. He walked the few steps to where his hat lay and picked it up. A few swift movements of his hand cleaned the brim of dust and it was placed back on his head with a practiced hand. His attention turned back to the creature before him. “Life has been treating you well, I hope.”

“Mm, life has, though not much else,” the bird said thoughtfully. “No thanks to a certain someone, that is. Still playing around with the humans, I see. One would think you ought to have learned your lesson by now, but I suppose some simply can’t be taught. And yes, I’m referring to you.”

“I am aware,” Corbin said, the only emotion he showed a small twitch of the lip. “I am also aware,” he continued, “that you know exactly why I am here, and have chosen to ignore the matter at hand.” His expression shifted slightly as if daring the bird to prove him wrong. The bird ruffled its feathers with an air of discomfort.

“I strongly dislike you, Corbin,” the bird said, sneering down at him.

“I am aware of that as well,” was the patient reply. The bird’s claws were not made for standing around, and the bird shifted its weight uncomfortably.

“Have you come to offer me a deal?” the bird asked gruffly. Corbin shook his head wordlessly. “Then have you come to threaten me?” Another shake of the head. “Then you have come to trick me,” was the final guess, followed by a third shake. The bird tsked. “You’re a hard man to figure out,” it said. “But I suppose if everyone said what they meant, the world would be far too easy to figure out. Would take the fun out of everything, I daresay.”

Corbin seemed to agree, though he still refused to speak. The bird ruffled its feathers suspiciously.

“Surely you’re planning something,” the creature said in disbelief. “Perhaps you plan to have your pet, the Jabberwocky, swoop in and bite Alice’s head off at the last moment. Surely you have no need for me in your plans, could very well leave me alone, but choose instead to pressure me into helping you because I have yet to fall for that smile of yours. Yes, yours.”

“Believe what you will,” Corbin said innocently. “I am not forcing you into anything, threatening you, or otherwise tricking you. The final choice is yours, but I will help point you in the right direction. You will understand that you’re a valuable character, even just by reference.”

The bird snorted. “Everyone knows the story,” it said. “The Jubjub bird has a small part, barely one at all. You wouldn’t know what being a minor character is like though, would you? After all, you took the second best part for yourself. I wouldn’t be surprised if next time you decided to play Alice. It’s all about your big ego, after all.”

“Second best? Hardly,” Corbin said, taking the hat from his head and twirling it skillfully on a finger. “I merely took the most fitting. You could scarcely see me playing the Dormouse.”

“I could if I tried,” the bird replied haughtily. “Why, I could play the Queen of Hearts if I wanted to. But that isn’t the matter. Just what do you hope to achieve by playing the same game over and over again? If you find the right girl, the story will be completed, and you will have won, is that it? Of course, it must be. You’re no more than a sore loser.”

“Believe what you will,” Corbin repeated, tossing the hat deftly back onto his head. “I don’t have all day to spare chatting with you, so I shall take my leave. When you come to a decision, and I’m sure you’ll give me the right answer, simply let me know. If you’ll excuse me, my ex-girlfriend is stirring up trouble looking for me, and my subjects are growing tired of her antics.” Corbin turned to go and the bird tsked again, a little more loudly than before.

“Wait,” it said, rolling its eyes. Corbin turned halfway, a small smirk on his face. The bird scowled. “As you well know,” it said slowly, “I strongly dislike you, Corbin.” Corbin waited patiently for the continuation. For a moment the bird simply held his gaze, as if still in doubt, before a half-grin seemed to come over its beak. “Luckily for you,” it finished at last, straightening to its full length, “my dislike for Alice is slightly stronger.”

Kate found herself on firm ground for what seemed like the first time in ages, and she would have kissed it if not for the fact that kissing dirt was highly unhygienic. She checked to make sure that she was all in one piece and she still had the sword, and to her relief, everything was in order. It would be impossible to get used to travelling by pool. She looked around, expecting to see Mr. Voice somewhere around, but he was nowhere to be seen. She would have been lying if she’d said that she wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed. She’d rather hoped she would end up appearing right next to him and everything would be merry until and including a happy ending.

“Slow, aren’t you, little mouse,” a smooth voice said from somewhere vaguely above. Kate looked up and nearly had a heart attack. A huge bird sat nestled in a tree nearly the same size as itself. It was an impressive and frightening creature, with brilliantly colored feathers and the sharp beak and great talons of a predatory bird. Kate felt faint.

The bird ruffled its feathers and stretched out its long neck with a sigh as if it were indifferent to Kate. It gazed back down at her, beady eyes thoughtful. “Well, you don’t look like much to me,” it said. Kate was trying to tell whether this bird was a “ma’am” or a “sir”, for surely it was one of the two, and shot a furtive glance at the nether regions in hopes of spotting a clue. “But… you do have the Vorpal Sword, so I guess you’re the right person,” the bird continued. Noticing her gaze, it uncomfortably shifted its wings. “Corbin sent me,” it said as if tossing a distraction her way. The tactic worked, Kate’s eyes were drawn upwards at the mention of his name.

“Mr. Voice did? Then he’s around here somewhere?” Kate asked hopefully. The bird shook its head in a bored sort of way.

“He was,” the bird said lazily. “Not anymore. He had more important business to attend to and couldn’t wait, so he asked me to fetch you. You must have heard of the issue.”

“You mean…” Kate thought for a moment. “The issue with Alice?”

The bird shuddered at the name. “Don’t remind me,” it said. “Women.” It said this word with great distaste, leading Kate to assume triumphantly that the bird was male. It gingerly stepped from its perch onto the ground, its curved talons uncomfortably stretched flat. “Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible. I have things to do.”

“Er… get what over with quickly, if you don’t mind my asking?” Kate asked, not quite understanding. The bird gave her a look that she didn’t appreciate.

“Get on,” the bird said, as though it were obvious. Kate looked dubiously at the bird’s fragile-seeming back with an expression giving away her next sentence, which was “On what?” The bird responded by reaching its neck forward to nip at her skirt, an action that made Kate leap back as its beak got too close to her legs for comfort.

“Watch it,” she snapped. The bird raised its neck again, paying no mind to her irritation.

“I’m not going to say it again,” the creature said distastefully. “I’m not a simple beast of burden. Having me do these sorts of things is quite simply insulting. I can’t say what Corbin was thinking, to have me do something like this… even the Bandersnatch would have been a better choice, and I’ve never said that before in my life. But there’s no time for dilly-dallying!”

“Who was dilly-dallying…?” Kate muttered as she hesitantly approached the bird, which spread its wings impatiently.

“Take care not to pull on my feathers,” it snapped as she carefully hoisted herself up and nestled herself into what seemed like the proper spot. Suffice it to say, she had never ridden a bird before, and the feeling was quite strange. There wasn’t really anywhere to put her legs, having no saddle, so she felt awfully unsteady atop the silky back. She was going to take some time experimenting with how to hold onto the sword and the bird’s neck at the same time, but apparently the bird didn’t find it necessary to let her adjust herself, and had taken off before Kate had even realized it. She nearly dropped the sword in surprise and scolded herself for it.

It did not feel quite unsteady as Kate had thought; the air truly was this creature’s domain, it seemed, for the way it shifted its weight under her kept her on without too much trouble. Kate could feel every flap of its wings in the muscles under her hands and legs, and wind whistled by as if trying to pull Kate along with it. She winced as her eyes grew wet with tears and hid her face behind the bird’s neck, out of the wind. The creature muttered to itself as it glided along, probably saying nasty things about her under its breath. The ride itself was really surprisingly smooth. She’d expected to be thrown off, jarred around, perhaps fall to her death. She would have very nearly held her arms out in exhilaration if not for the sword in her hands.

If anyone had asked her yesterday what she’d be doing today, her guess would have been just about anything but what had happened thus far. A cup of tea and a book would have been just about the only things that counted as adventurous in her daily life, and now she was riding a humongous bird with a magical sword in her hands off to save the world. Funny how the world worked, wasn’t it? She still wondered how this would end, but it wasn’t worth fretting over. Or was it? The fate of the world sort of hung in the balance…

She set herself instead to watching the landscape that sped by. In the distance, she could see the ground that made up each square. It got her to wondering how she’d managed to see that from simply the hill with the Red Queen. It certainly seemed quite a bit larger when one was actually in one of the squares. Or did it? After all, one seemed to move through them quite fast, though not seeming to physically leave or enter… goodness, the whole thing was confusing. It certainly didn’t work logically. And in fact, now that Kate took a good look at the bird, its coloring was similar to that of a turkey, which wasn’t frightening at all. It had nothing to do with her train of thought, she realized, which must have switched tracks somewhere along the way.

She didn’t see anything she recognized on the ground, besides the great chessboard in the land. The bird seemed to notice her interest and twisted its flexible neck to somehow talk to her and continue flying at the same time. “You managed to make it through most of the squares,” it said, something almost respect in his voice. “Luckily the White Queen was there to guide you through the Fifth, and Humpty-Dumpty in the Sixth might be a bit of an irritable old man but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Or… on the rest of him, in any case.”

“Oh, yes, I was very grateful for their help,” Kate said, nodding. “Though if those were the Fifth and Sixth, would that mean then that the swamp was part of the Sixth Square or the Seventh?”

“Swamp?” the bird asked. It looked a little confused. “Um… probably the Seventh. I’ve never played, myself, so I don’t know much about the rules. We’re going to the Eighth to meet up with Corbin now. The Eighth is most likely where Alice is headed as well; that square is for those who want to become Queen.”

“Oh, dear,” was Kate’s reply. “Does that mean then that Alice is trying to become a queen?”

“Where have you been?” the bird muttered. “The Red Queen told you the rules, no doubt, unless you weren’t listening. The Eighth Square is the end of the game; if you reach it, you’ve won. When you win the game, you become a Queen, and there’s a fabulous party for the staff members to celebrate. Not that I know much about that either…”

“Has anyone won before?” Kate asked curiously. The bird gave her a look.

“You’re awfully inquisitive,” it said with distaste. Kate shrugged.

“I like to know what I’m getting into,” she said honestly. The bird sighed.

“Fair enough,” it said. “No, no one’s won yet. Alice was the first, and she didn’t make it to the end before she was kicked out. Then there was a girl who didn’t speak any English, she didn’t make it very far at all. I’ve no clue what Corbin was thinking with that, he was the only one who could understand anything she said. Then there’s you, and you might have managed it if not for Alice raining on everybody’s parade. Quite rude, if you ask me.”

“So Corbin’s quite the lady-killer, then?” Kate asked with a little smile. The bird scoffed.

“Indeed,” it agreed, amusement coming over its features. The next few minutes of the ride were made in silence. Kate thought she’d much like to continue chatting, since chatting always calmed her nerves, but the bird didn’t seem like much of a talker, so she held herself back. It took a fair amount of willpower, but Kate was nothing if not willful, so she was confident she could hold out until they got where they were going. That thought, however, brought another thought to mind…

“Er… how long is it until we get there?” Kate asked curiously. The bird seemed thoughtful.

“We’re close,” it said. “Luckily for you, travelling by Jubjub bird is nearly the fastest mode of transportation in all of Wonderland. Short of actually transporting, of course.”

“Oh, a Jubjub bird, is that what you are?” Kate asked cheerfully. Having another question answered, even if it wasn’t relevant to the issue at hand, made it feel to Kate as though things were getting places, which was a very good feeling indeed.

“No, I’m the Dormouse,” the bird said sarcastically. “You don’t see any other extremely handsome, helpful, and talented birds around, do you?”

“And humble, too,” Kate muttered.

“That too,” the bird agreed, quite ironically, in Kate’s opinion.

“Then, what should I call you?” Kate wondered. “Mr. Jubjub Bird? Mr. Bird?”

“I wouldn’t be caught dead being called something half so tacky,” the Jubjub bird replied frostily. “You can call me Edwin. At some point, if I like you, I may even let you call me Ed. Never Eddy. If you should feel the urge to do call me such, I shall drop you from a very specific height.”

“Mr. Edwin it is, then,” Kate said agreeably.

“Don’t make me sound so old,” the Jubjub bird snapped. “Just ‘Edwin’ is good enough.”

“Edwin, then,” Kate corrected herself. “But you don’t have to be quite so snappy. Saying it simply and kindly gets your point across just fine. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years, it’s that a little kindness never does you wrong. Unless you’re speaking to an idiot; all the patience in the world can’t help you there, so you might as well speak your mind.”

“It seems you’ve got a good head on your shoulders,” Edwin said thoughtfully. “A good thing, too, seeing as half the people here are simply cockeyed. Especially the Hare’s sister… if there wasn’t a need for an institution, her existence would make it necessary. The sane ones here are sadly few and far between. You need a bit of crazy though, to be in this line of work.”

“I would agree with you,” Kate said. “I haven’t been here long, but it certainly seems as if everyone is at the very least the slightest bit bonkers. I don’t mind it, it’s been an intriguing adventure thanks to that, but it is a little disconcerting at times.”

“I wouldn’t join in even if Corbin paid me,” Edwin said mournfully. “I’m not cut out for that sort of ridiculousness. I find plenty of things to occupy myself with, I don’t need to join a merry cast of misfits for the sake of some romantic magician’s love life.”

“You mean all of you aren’t paid?” Kate asked, taken aback.

“Of course not,” Edwin scoffed. “It’s a volunteer effort. Well, volunteer… coercion, more like. It’s not like they have anywhere else to go. This is the only way they know. I’m sure Corbin doesn’t mind getting the willing and free actors out of nowhere… he organized the whole thing, after all. Sly, twisted, flamboyant man.”

Kate snorted. “Flamboyant he is, all right,” she agreed. “I’ve never met someone quite so dramatic in real life. It seems as though everything’s an act for him, the way he swishes around his cloak and steals away young ladies. Or all ladies, perhaps.”

“Those that catch his fancy,” Edwin murmured. “I’ve no clue what his plans were. If he didn’t see something like this coming, then perhaps I give him more respect than he’s due. Any even halfway brilliant mind would be able to see it coming from a mile away. It’s never a good idea to get involved with human women… too emotional and dramatic. Much like Corbin himself.”

Kate imagined something quite odd and laughed aloud in amusement. “Perhaps that’s why Mr. Voice likes them so much, he can relate to them,” she suggested, which had nothing to do with her strange and somewhat uncalled-for imagining of Corbin in a tutu.

“Mr. Voice?” Edwin asked curiously.

“Oh, a childhood nickname for the man,” Kate explained dismissively.

“Childhood, eh?” Edwin asked. “So he had an eye on you from a young age. Time runs differently here, he must’ve just waited a little too long before fetching you.”

“What do you mean, too long?” Kate asked indignantly. “I’m as good as I ever was! Well… I suppose I have been better, but not by too much. I’m wiser with every day, I’ll have you know!”

“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Edwin said, chuckling. “If I had my choice of lady, she’d be young and lovely as well. Of course, from what I hear, I’m the only of my species… but you humans have a much better chance of finding what you like. I hear there are billions of you.”

“Half of them aren’t any good,” Kate said dismissively. “The half that are worth something are either taken or gay, the others will tell you. Not that I ever understood that logic. I was happy with what I got, even if it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t ever my wish to pop out a dozen children and live until the triple digits.”

“That’s what they all tell themselves,” Edwin said meaningfully. Kate batted his shoulder. The bird responded by dipping dangerously to one side, causing Kate to surrender when she hadn’t so much as started. Edwin straightened out again, looking down. “We’re nearly there,” he said, nodding forward. “Look there.”

Kate strained to see over Edwin’s shoulder and in the face of the fierce wind. The land that lay before and under them seemed to grow sparser as they went along, only to break into a rocky field that seemed almost to Kate like a chessboard’s battlefield. She’d often imagined the pieces clash as they met on each square, before one of them was carted away with substantial injuries. Everyone did that, didn’t they? It didn’t make her odd. The field and what led up to it seemed completely empty of life, however. There was not a person or creature in sight.

The Jubjub bird circled for a moment around a dying tree before carefully alighting, the branches creaking slightly under his weight. Kate looked at the ground, which seemed awfully far away. “Um…” she began, but Edwin had already realized. He stepped carefully off of the poor tree, which seemed like a mere bush beside him, and uncomfortably onto the rocky ground. Kate slid off, her legs feeling quite weak. She took a seat on a rock beside the tree.

“Well,” she said. “That was quite adventurous, and I thank you for the ride. Am I supposed to wait here now for Corbin, or was someone else supposed to show up?”

Edwin was looking around. “It is quite odd,” he said, sounding confused. “From what I gathered, Corbin was to meet us here. Even if I don’t like the man, I will admit he sticks to his word. How strange that there’s no one in sight.”

“Hmph,” Kate muttered. She’d gotten so far now that waiting was an affront to her efforts. Vorpal Sword in hand, Jubjub bird at her side, her hair a mess; it truly felt as though she’d been the hero for a day. Any more of this adventure stuff and she was quite afraid she’d just keel over. Edwin ruffled his feathers from beside her.

“I’ll take a look around from the air,” he said, “and let you know if I spot anything.” His voice sounded just a tad distressed, which distressed Kate all the further. She nodded. He took off, a rush of air following his movement, and took to the sky. In moments he was a distant shape circling the area. The image called to mind vultures circling their prey, an image Kate did not like to hold. She looked around a bit herself. The area was wide open. Had she been a tad younger, she might have fancied running to the other side and back. Wide-open spaces like these were just perfect for running, after all. She could imagine letting the town boys loose in the area and just tiring themselves out, and it seemed like quite a fetching prospect.

The area was littered with stones. Almost surrounded, really, like a magic circle. The tree and Kate’s rock, for which she had become very grateful, were set somewhere off to one side. Large boulders were behind her, with the expanse before her. It was truly an intriguing landscape.

Kate found she could do nothing but twiddle her thumbs, and so she did, with the sword lain across her lap. Within a few seconds she was already bored of the whole thing and stood to pace, setting the sword against the rock. She paced forwards and backwards a couple times, then ‘round in a circle, and was experimenting with pacing to the side when an odd chill ran down her spine. She turned. A single form met her eyes, approaching quietly with an air of grace.

She didn’t recognize the girl. Blond locks crowned with a dark cat-eared headband topped her head. Her dress was classic, a black lacy creation that called to mind an old-fashioned Gothic-styled ensemble, complete with stockings and neat, sensible shoes. The girl’s porcelain skin was muddled with dark makeup about her eyes and the most peculiar expression on her face. There was a time when Kate would have killed for the maiden’s eyelashes.

What captured Kate’s attention, however, was not the girl. What captured Kate’s attention was the little kitten that trotted along beside her, as though it hadn’t a care in the world. It was the missing Little Roar, apparently having found a new alliance. Kate was dumbfounded.

“You little sneak,” she said aloud. The girl’s eyebrows drew up in warning.

“What was that?” she asked, her voice dangerously collected.

“Oh, not you,” Kate said apologetically. “That was my cat, you see. I thought he’d gone missing, but I see he’s fine. I shan’t worry my pretty little head about it anymore!”

“I… see.” The girl said, glancing down at the cat. She looked back at Kate, a pained smile dawning on her face. She was apparently not used to smiling, for it made her look quite ill. “I assume you must be the newest Queen candidate, Katie. I must say I’d imagined something a little more… fetching. Corbin’s tastes have changed quite a bit.”

“Eh?” Kate asked, somewhat confused. “Oh, dear me, no. I’m just here for a bit of an adventure, it was all his idea, really. I’d have sooner let the matter drop…”

Something made Kate stop in her tracks. This girl… the hairs on Kate’s arms stood up. The sword lay against the rock only a few steps away, but she wished she had it in hand. Kate’s eyes narrowed. “Then… you are…?” she trailed off, uncertain.

“Oh, how rude of me,” the girl said. “Allow me to introduce myself.” She curtsied deeply and straightened rigidly, almost like a waxwork doll. “I am Master Corbin’s one and only sweetheart, Queen Alice of Wonderland,” she said, confirming Kate’s suspicions.

“I see,” replied Kate, rather coldly. “Your Majesty,” she added, in way of greeting. Alice laughed. It seemed a pity; she really was a pretty young lady, if not for the oddity in the way she formed her expressions. It was really somewhat disturbing.

“You seem a little out of your element,” Alice said, sounding amused. “Surely you didn’t believe you could make it to the position of queen?”

“I wasn’t particularly trying,” Kate said frostily. “I would have been quite happy with what’s happened thus far. In fact, it was becoming a little tiring.”

Alice chuckled a bit again. Then she whipped around, causing Kate to jump. “You hear that, Corbin?!” she shrieked into the air. “Your adventure is tiresome! Useless! A bore!” She twisted herself back to face Kate, her head cocked somewhat extremely to one side. “He’s a little full of himself,” she whispered, her expression mournful. “He needs the occasional putting-down to keep him humble. It’s a girlfriend’s job to do what’s best for her man. I’m sure you understand.”

“… Yes,” Kate replied after a moment, realizing that the girl before her was more than just a little kooky, and perhaps in a more dangerous sense than the other inhabitants of Wonderland.

“Good,” Alice said, smiling brightly once more. “Now then. It seems only fitting that I should give you an honorable death, like your friend the Caterpillar. I suppose you’re wondering a number of things right now. What’s going to happen to you, maybe, or where your wonderful Hatter is. The wonders of Wonderland will never cease, will they?” Alice cocked her head to the other side thoughtfully. “It’s truly a question worth asking,” she commented. “No, honestly now… will the wonders of Wonderland ever just… cease?”

“He was never ‘my wonderful’ anything,” Kate pointed out matter-of-factly. Alice’s impressively demonic scowl deepened.

“I hear you don’t like poetry,” she said in a low, controlled sort of voice. “That’s too bad, but do shut that little mouth of yours until I’m done, for it’s quite rude to interrupt, you know.” She stared off into space for a moment, and then cleared her throat and began to recite:

There once was a cat and a raven-bird.

Who fell into love where the lines were blurred.

The nature of things brought these two to war,

When she spied the lies in the raven’s word.

But cats in some way always land on their feet,

So she took his challenge, prepared to mete.

She searched, and searched, and searched all day…

Here Black Alice paused, and a slow smile came over her face. “And I’m sure you can imagine what happened she found what she was looking for,” she whispered, her words falling like draped velvet in the air, sending shivers down Kate’s spine. It wasn’t that chilly out, and yet she felt cold all of a sudden. Her hand clenched around a gathered fistful of her skirt.

“Now, in case you’re wondering how I’ll kill you,” continued Alice as she continued forward a few more steps, not minding that she nearly stepped on Little Roar, “I can only tell you that it will be lots and lots of fun. Pardoning the cliché line, you won’t mind if I take off your head, would you? Be a dear and hold still for me.”

Kate took a quick step back as Alice flipped open a lacy black fan with a slight flick of her wrist and a sound like the crack of a whip. The sun glinted off of the ribbed blades that made up the fan’s skeleton. She held up the strange fan with the bladed tips pointed straight at Kate, her eyes narrowed and dark with bloodlust. “Why step away?” she asked, laughing. “Are we playing tag, little Kate, is that it? I’ll be ‘It’ first then.” Alice stepped forward and Kate stepped back, her hand closing around the sheathed blade that was set against the rock. She didn’t bother looking behind her and just took off. It didn’t matter if her joints were old and crackling, she ran.

As she ran, she prayed that Edwin had seen Alice from above, though she could no longer make out any sign of him in the sky. Where had he disappeared to? Surely he hadn’t just deserted her? He didn’t seem like the type, but then again, Kate had never called herself the best judge of character. She refused to look behind her in case Alice was gaining on her, as she likely was, but stumbled a bit as she tripped over a small gray body. She glanced down as she moved past. It was a cat. Another appeared from behind a stone and soon they began pouring out like ants from the woodwork, tripping over each other in sheer quantity. Kate groaned.

Any other time, Kate was quite a fan of cats. She liked the way they would sit on one’s lap, a comforting warmth much like an electric blanket but without the use of electricity. At this particular moment in time, however, cats were her least favorite animals. It was left to either them or slugs, which she couldn’t stand at any time. Kate gasped slightly as she tripped, quite impressively, one might add, and went rolling head over heels, sword still tightly grasped in her hands. The cats had already caught up to her. They went mainly for her sword, but batted at her ankles in that adorable kitten way that became very annoying very quickly.

Kate managed to wrestle the sword out from under the writhing, yowling mass of bodies that had attempted to take it from her and struggle to her feet, a little stunned. She heard almost hyper giggling from behind her and wished the wastrel would just shut up already. She was just wondering where Edwin had disappeared to when there was a whistle of wind and flash of color, and a few of the cats when flying. Kate got to her feet and kept running, unsure where, exactly, she was running to. The extra hand (or claw, rather?) provided by the Jubjub bird was a great help as he picked the cats off of her, but really there was nowhere to run, and perhaps Alice had thought of this. Kate tried to spot Edwin. Perhaps she could do some sort of flying leap onto his back and get out of there. He seemed a little busy, though; unfortunately for him, cats and birds were not exactly compatible, and so for every cat he managed to throw, he lost a handful of feathers to their claws.

Kate supposed sooner or later she should unsheathe the sword and wave it around like she meant business… but actually chopping parts off of people really wasn’t her style. She looked around, hoping that something would give her an idea. Alice simply stood off to one side, laughing as her cats swarmed around the Jubjub bird. It seemed as though she’d entirely forgotten Kate, she was having so much fun. Kate took the chance to unsheathe the sword, which disappointedly still refused to hum or anything of the sort. Its hilt was delicately made to fit to a woman’s slim hand, and the sword was surprisingly light, but other than that, it was an average sort of weapon.

Kate looked up, catching movement out of the corners of her eyes. Alice’s head had seemed to snap around as Kate drew the blade. All traces of laughter had run from her face.

“What are you doing?!” she screeched, going pale. “What are you doing?! That’s mine! I didn’t say you could touch it! Give it back right now!”

Her attention turned away from Edwin, he shook himself free of the distracted cats and took back to the sky, out of their range. Alice approached Kate menacingly and Kate held the sword up in warning. Her action did not seem to deter the blond youth.

“I… I will cut you,” Kate warned, feeling very, very out of her element waving the sword at the girl. Either Alice knew Kate didn’t have it in her or she wasn’t concerned about losing a limb or two in the grand scheme of things, because she continued her advance. Kate groaned. She really didn’t have a plan past that, and she needed one. Quickly.

As if to answer her prayers, a great shadow appeared in the sky. Kate’s first thought was Edwin again, but the shadow was too large. Before she could even look up, an ear-shattering roar swallowed the air. The sound shook the very earth, stopping every heart and movement. Kate had never heard anything like it. Luckily Alice and all of the cats were just as stunned as she was, and nobody was able to move for a good few seconds. Kate’s head turned.

A streak of yellow lightning rumbled in the sky, lighting up the dark figure that stood imposingly on the plain. Claws dug into the ground as it landed, sending chunks of earth flying, and huge wings were extended for balance. Bottomless deep purple eyes mounted atop a long, scaly neck surveyed the scene before it with a malicious glare.

Kate had no doubt that this was the fabled Jabberwocky.

It bared long white fangs inches long as it got down on all fours, crouching oddly low to the ground, as if to spring at Alice, who took a quick, involuntary step back. Instead of moving to attack, however, the beast seemed to calm. It settled down and turned its head, forked tongue slipping out to taste the air curiously.

“Looks like we made it in time,” remarked a deep, reverberating female voice. Kate’s surprise only multiplied when Corbin appeared, sliding off the Jabberwocky’s back with a relaxed air. As he landed, he tipped his hat to Kate with a smooth smirk on his face.

“I do hope I didn’t miss anything important,” he said cheerfully to the air in general. There was a moment of stunned silence from every cat, Alice, and even Kate and Edwin.

A heart-wrenching howl, though not nearly as impressive as the Jabberwocky’s, filled the air. Everyone turned to the seething Black Alice, who was shaking visibly with an intense, indescribable rage, the fan shaking unsteadily in her hand.

“You… bastard,” she growled, her voice inhuman. Her arm shot up to point accusingly at Corbin. “How… dare you bring that beast here? How dare you show up like nothing ever happened, with that… that lofty, cheeky smirk on your face? How dare you show your face?”

“I apologize,” said Corbin calmly, plucking his hat from his head and giving Black Alice a deep gentlemanly bow in greeting. Alice’s eyes narrowed, her teeth grinding together so brutally that Kate cringed. “I couldn’t help it,” Corbin added, giving Kate a sideways wink as he placed his hat back on his head. “Every story needs its hero, and everyone knows that a hero should arrive fashionably late. And preferably atop a noble steed, though I’m afraid you’ll have to forgive me that… this is the best I could conjure up on such short notice.”

Alice’s head was bowed and her expression was not visible, but her lips moved rapidly. Kate could just make out her mumbling something that sounded dark and evil. The bladed fan in her hand vibrated as if resonating with her anger, though it was likely that it was just her hand shaking with fury. Alice looked up suddenly, her face oddly serene. “You will die,” said Alice, quite simply. “You and your pets, all of your beasts, every little subject in your pretty little kingdom; I will kill all of you, down to the last man.”

“Oh,” said Corbin, sounding surprised. He slid a hand into his raven-feather cloak and drew out a small black pocket-watch, which he snapped open and gazed at thoughtfully. “It seems a little late to start anything now… I only just got off tea,” he said rather mournfully. With a wordless howl, Alice bounded forward, her attention obviously focused on cutting Corbin down. As she charged, the cats charged with her. The Jabberwocky glanced down at them with an unconcerned air, and Edwin appeared above once more to dash them against the rocks.

The Jabberwocky took to the air. Apparently irritated at the sheer mass of the cats, regardless of whether or not they could harm her or not, she joined the fray. No more than a shadow, her claws raked through the sea of cats like fingers would slip through water. She somehow managed to move as speedily as Edwin if not faster, despite her larger size. The Jabberwocky snapped her jaws, and Kate closed her eyes as she heard the pained yowls of the cats. She turned back to Alice and Corbin quite suddenly, her attention stolen by the flash of metal. Corbin had dodged Alice’s fan effortlessly. Alice seethed with a material rage that hung around her like a black curtain. Corbin followed her movements as though he read her mind. Every time he dodged one of her wild swings, she grew increasingly more upset. Kate’s hands clenched around the hilt of the Vorpal Sword.

“There’s nothing you can do,” she reminded herself. “There’s no way you can run in there guns blazing… or swords swinging, I suppose… and possibly hope to win. Better just stay behind and watch from the sidelines.” She watched with creases between her eyes, barely able to follow their movements. Raven feathers fluttered to the ground as the fan clipped Corbin’s cape. Kate’s hand fluttered in concern, her mouth opening, but saying nothing.

As if reading her mind, Corbin glanced at Kate.

“You stand there looking pretty,” he said, flashing her one of his irresistible smiles. Kate found herself nodding, but his momentary break of concentration was enough of an opening for Alice. The fan came flying, blades tipped outwards and flashing lethally in the sun, and Corbin wasn’t able to knock it out of the way fully. The blades raked his arm, leaving a blossoming trail of red. Kate knew she had to do something.

She looked down at the sword in her hands. She looked back at Alice and Corbin. Then back to the sword. She felt like an idiot. Of course there was very little she could do with a sword… but surely Corbin would be able to use it to his advantage. Kate waved the sword in the air.

“Corbin,” she exclaimed. “Here!” Corbin glanced back at her, his expression a little strained. He saw the sword in her hands and his eyes widened. Kate thought it was strange that he hadn’t noticed the thing before, but as long as she could get it to him, everything would be all right. She’d convinced herself that this had to be the case. Everything would be all right.

Corbin ducked under another one of Alice’s dangerously frenzied swings. He turned his back on Alice, a dangerous move, in order to go for the sword in Kate’s hands. Alice saw what he was doing, but she wasn’t fast enough. Corbin yanked the blade from Kate’s hands and whirled about with an intensity Kate could not have imagined the seemingly suave man summoning. The Vorpal Blade met Alice’s fan with what seemed to Kate to be more of a screech than a metallic clang. Corbin gritted his teeth. The sword looked oddly delicate in his hands, and Kate might have giggled at its feminine form if the situation had not called for sobriety.

Of all the things Kate had seen throughout her life, watching people duke it out with fancy weapons while cats and winged creatures brawled in the distance was something new. Not that it was any newer than half the things she’d seen in Wonderland, but it had a sort of dreamlike air to it, as if she wasn’t really there… and voices? No, there were, it wasn’t her imagination. Kate turned, wondering if Alice had a henchman sneaking up on her or something of the sort, but there was nothing there. Her forehead creased in confusion. What was that? She couldn’t make out what they were saying. Something about school classes? A birthday party? Whatever did that have to do with the current situation? And… there was a faint, steady beeping behind it all. Oh, dear… they said voices were the first sign of madness. Surely Kate hadn’t gone mad? Ancient though she could be considered, “mad” was a bit of a stretch.

Kate blinked. Was it just her imagination, or was the landscape around her dulling somehow? It almost seemed to be melting out of her range of sight… what was this? She tried to focus on Corbin and Alice before her. They were fading away as if they were the dream. She blinked.

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