Chapter 1: Horrors Past Imagination
A loud groan of pain tore itself from Sidney’s throat, his body spasming from the blood loss, and Alice gave a small start; the sound jerked her out of the memory and into reality. Now he looked weaker and paler, like a ghost being born.
“Your Highness, he ain’t lookin’ good,” Gowland said in a low voice. “I think he’s told us everything.”
“Then give him some medicine to ease the pain,” Vivaldi commanded. Gray took the medicine box from Gowland, and quietly prepared a syringe.
“Wait, wait! Can’t we do something? Anything to help?!” Alice asked.
No one spoke as Gray tied a tourniquet, gave the injection, and quickly undid the tie. There may have been regret or remorse in a few eyes, but she saw no sadness or guilt. No, that’s not a feeling known in this world. Death isn’t anything truly permanent to them.
But it was to her, and she whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Quicker than she expected, Sidney’s good hand shot out and grabbed a handful of her hair. With a little squeak of surprise, Alice was pulled down so closely that she could feel his lips against her ear and blood seeping into her clothes. A few shouts from behind her that disappeared as soon as the black rabbit spoke.
“Crysta told me to run… I had to leave my queen… to find you….” When Alice tried to pull back so everyone could hear, the fingers in her hair tightened and she kept still. “Outsider… if you are killed… your heart eaten… it will destroy Wonderland... please….”
A strangled sound from deeper in his chest, and he whispered, “Please destroy my clock.”
It happened too quickly. Alice was ripped out of his hand – leaving behind more than a few strands of hair – and her mind barely processed the sight of Pierce’s knife winging down into Sidney’s chest with merciless aim. She let out a high shriek at the sound of cracking glass and the sight of spurting blood.
“It’s okay, Alice,” Boris said – him arm holding her in place – as he petted her hair. “You’re okay.”
“It’s not your fault.”
Moments later, Sidney’s body shimmered in the air, and his clock lay lifeless on the ground. The tip of the knife was embedded deep inside, and even from a distance Alice could see the damage he had done.
“Can I kill him?” Ace brightly asked, already holding out his sword with the tip pointed to Pierce’s neck.
“I heard it,” the mouse said, almost defiantly, as he stared at Julius. “He asked her to kill him, but she’s too nice and won’t do it, so I did.”
They stayed that way for a handful of seconds before Julius slowly shook his head. Pierce’s knife disappeared, and he tossed the remnants of the broken watch at the Clockmaster.
“Back down, Ace, until we find out what the Black Rabbit told Alice,” he said, tucking the clock away. Ace’s sword slid into its scabbard and everyone’s attention turned to her.
Alice gave herself a good mental shake; there were bigger issues to deal with than her squeamishness. “He said not to get killed, since it could destroy Wonderland. I mean… so far so good, right? No one’s killed me yet.”
“We can give it a try!” Black Joker said.
Alice made a face. “You’re not eating my heart.”
Murmurs and thoughtful whispers as everyone spoke their concerns.
Then someone yelled, “Oh SHIT!”
Everyone turned shocked eyes to Gowland, of all people, his hand pressed angrily to his forehead. “Shit! Shit! SHIT!”
“Something wrong?” Blood asked in a painfully deadpan voice.
“I know what we’re dealing with!”
“Great. Care to tell us, or is it part of a game?” Boris asked.
“This is no game, Cheshire Cat, and there is no time to jest.”
Alice thought that the Joker had spoken, but it was the King of Hearts who stepped forward. She wasn’t the only one who was surprised; it showed on nearly everyone’s face, particularly Vivaldi’s. The king was normally a shadow-man; inclined to let the queen do the day-to-day running of the land. “It would be best if we spoke on the situation. We will try to be succinct.
“This is not war. The thing we are speaking of is a solitary creature –the Jabberwock.”
The name was so unbelievable that Alice let out a hysterical snort. She immediately covered her mouth, but was relieved that no one else seemed to be particularly affected by the word.
“All right, I’ll bite. What’s a… whatever you called it?” Elliot asked.
“A Jabberwock is a creature of hideous power, much greater than even those of the Role Holders. It is nothing close to human, more like a vicious beast that thrives on the lives of the Wonderland inhabitants. Truly, it is a demonic being, timeless and ageless. As it eats the living, it steals the form of those it devours and ransacks their thoughts and memories. Those that have been taken cannot be reborn, and the Jabberwock controls all afterimages as one’s brain controls a finger.”
As he spoke, Alice felt a cold come over her, and she shivered and huddled deeper into Boris’s arms.
Vivaldi was nearly white. “This cannot be. We have not heard of such a thing in our years. Something that controls the Afterimages is….”
“I have,” Joker said, and it was a bad sign to see that he looked… less composed than usual. “But I was told that the Jabberwock was sealed away over forty-four thousand time-turns ago.”
Alice’s mind tried to wrap itself around that number; couldn’t do it. So about 6 hours is in one time-turn, just throwing out an average depending on the sky’s mood... that’s a little over seven thousand days, but divide by three hundred fifty, rounding down for days in a year…. “That’s over twenty years ago!”
“Years? What’s that?” Dum asked, with Dee echoing, “What’re years?”
“I’ve heard that word before,” Nightmare said. “It measures large numbers of time-turns. Not a phrase we use here, but in your world it is much easier to measure such a thing.”
“One year is about, uhm, two thousand time turns, kind of,” she said, rechecking her math. “But if it was sealed away so long ago, what is this Jabberwock thing doing walking around now?”
“The better question is, how do we kill it again?” Elliot asked.
“It completely slaughtered the Queen of Diamonds, and did one hell of a job on the Black Rabbit,” Peter said grimly. “While I bear no love to either, they were not weak Role Holders.”
“They were unprepared. We are not,” Blood said.
“Ain’t that simple,” Gowland said with a shake of his head.
“He is correct,” the King said. “The Jabberwock eats the Wonderland inhabitants; if it can be cornered away from people, it will return to a state of, shall we call it, stasis. Inactivity, possibly dormancy, but not death. However, the reason that Black Rabbit was so concerned for Alice is that, well, if the Jabberwock were to eat her heart, it would live forever.”
“What?” and everyone’s attention sharpened to a sword-point on the king.
“The Jabberwock hungers for power; the faceless carry sand-grains of life while the Role Holders carry many hourglasses worth. A heart, however, is an eternal thing; it is beyond all time. The Jabberwock could devour her heart and become indestructible. It could raze Wonderland to dust.”
Oh God, and now her throat was dry and her knees felt like wilted flower petals. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.
“We could just kill Alice!” Black Joker said. “Then, no worries!”
Peter actually fired a handful of rounds on the Joker, who half-stepped out of the way.
“Not feeling it, huh?” Black Joker asked.
“Then we will just have to protect her until we destroy the Jabberwock,” Gray said without a hint of hesitation.
“No, we don’t.”
Everyone stopped and looked at Julius, his arms crossed and expression cold.
“Say that again, Clockmaster,” Vivaldi said, her scepter aimed at his face, “and your head will roll for such cowardice.”
Julius didn’t blink. “We are not going to protect Alice. We are going to send her back to her world.”
Her first thought was reprieve. Home! I can go back! I’ll be safe! I’ll be fine!
But… and shame suddenly followed, they won’t be. My friends, the family I made here will still be in danger. No, I don’t want to leave them.
“Your idea is sound, Clockmaster, but it is not a viable option,” the King said, and he turned sorrowful eyes on Alice. “The only one who can destroy the Jabberwock is the Outsider.”
The words actually made her so light-headed that the room went momentarily black, and only Boris’s hands kept her from hitting the floor like a ton of bricks. As it was, he was forced to one knee and Nightmare offered another set of hands to help her down. She felt his fingers brush her forehead with gentle affection.
‘Just sleep, Alice, and we’ll take care of you,’ he whispered into her thoughts, but she could still hear the voices echoing around.
“That’s insane! Absolutely ridiculous!”
“She will not be put in that position!”
“This is not a debatable matter. This is an unchanging Rule.”
“It’s a shitty one.”
“Yeah, we think so too.”
“But that does not make it any less a Rule that even we all must abide.”
“So we let a helpless girl walk up to a monster and say, ‘Pardon me, but I need to kill you now’?”
“Oh God, we’re all going to die.”
“Or she will. Either way, we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.”
Finally, Alice found her voice. “Tell me something.” She pushed herself into a seated position, holding both Boris and Nightmare’s hands, and looked from Gowland to the King. “You’re certain that I’m the one who has to stop the Jabberwock.”
“Alice, don’t,” Peter warned, but she held up a hand and he went mercifully silent.
“Yes. We would not fabricate this truth,” the King said, and Gowland nodded.
“How do you know so much? Why should I believe you?”
Gowland waggled his thumb between himself and the King. “’Cause we were alive durin’ the last game. This ain’t our first rodeo.”
“Oh! Oh,” she said, and it was somewhat of a relief that this game wouldn’t be without a few ringers, “I guess... okay. So, then, how do I kill the Jabberwock?”
“There is a weapon called the Vorpal Blade, made only for the hands of Outsiders,” the King explained. “It is specifically created to kill the Jabberwock, but it has not been seen since at least the Jabberwock’s last appearance.”
“Over twenty years ago… but I need to find it, hopefully sooner rather than later,” she said as she stood, sounding far calmer than she felt. “So, uhm, anyone wanna come with?”
She meant the last phrase like a jest; if anyone (everyone) backed down, Alice would not have been the least bit surprised. It was, for all intents and purposes, a suicide mission. The Wonderland inhabitants weren’t too careful about other people’s lives, but they certainly protected their own with a vengeance.
But Vivaldi held her scepter up and gravely said, “We propose a truce between the warring factions. Heart Castle, Hatter Family, Park Duchy, Circus Land, Tower Lords – we are all to put aside our power struggles and territory battles until the matter of the Jabberwock has been completely resolved. Are we all in accordance?”
Gowland shrugged. “I’m game.”
“Of course,” Nightmare said, and Julius nodded in agreement.
“Yes,” Joker said.
“Anything for the young lady,” Blood said.
A soft red glow from the gemstone on top, and a little beam of light hit all the Role Holders over their clocks. Once it disappeared, two little symbols – a red heart and green clover – were evident on their clothes.
“What’s this?” Ace asked, poking at his jacket.
“Evidence of our agreed truce; any one whom goes against the agreement will be immediately killed,” Vivaldi said, then gave everyone a brilliantly sadistic smile. “Dear Alice, gentlemen – let the Game begin.”