Breaking Wonderland

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Chapter 2: Reconnaissance Efforts

“I still don’t understand why I have to stay here,” Alice said, caught between frustration and nerves.

“Because I would rather let the Queen cut off my head than send you into dangerous territory,” Peter said.

“But since the Jabberwock’s been all over the other countries, and probably won’t return because no one’s left, shouldn’t it be safe?”

Julius shook his head as he replaced a few borrowed books. “I realize that you want to do more, but please understand that you are the one irreplaceable person in this Game. We have no intention of letting you heedlessly risk yourself.”

I know, I know, Alice thought to herself, trying not to pace up and down the Hatter’s library. It just felt wrong, and a little bit odd, not to be in the thick of things. No one had really truly been concerned for her safety before, except in a distant ‘you’re the Outsider so we’ll try not to kill you’ way. Why was it different now?

Because now it does matter. Because if I can save the home of my friends, then I’ll do it.

Her mind wandered back one time-turn ago, when they made the decision to split up and gather information. The groups had mixed alliances with an ease that Alice hadn’t believed possible. It was actually kind of heartwarming, but she wouldn’t make bets that they were going to keep playing this nice.

Likely someone would be coming back yelling and cursing about being shot at or attacked. The thought almost made her smile, except that there was a great possibility someone might not come back. Please, everyone, please come back.

“Alice?”

She popped back into reality. “Yes?”

“Would you do me a favor?”

Anything to keep from going crazy with worry. “Sure.”

Julius pulled Sidney’s broken watch from his pocket; he held it the same way Gray held broken birds. “Pierce tried his best, but he did not completely destroy it. Although I know why he asked, as the Clockmaster it goes against all that I am to follow through. I realize that it is not a gentle thing I ask, but would-”

“I’ll take care of it,” and gently lifted the watch from his fingers.

“… Thank you.”

So she scurried out of the library and with some direction from the maids, found Elliot’s room. She’d been there only a few times, but quickly found what she was looking for.

Then she ducked outside and, making sure that no one saw her, entered the private rose garden. Despite the danger and chaos that was imminent, Alice’s heart still settled at the sight of such beautiful blooms. In the center of the grassy lawn near the tiny tea table, she knelt and set Sidney’s clock onto the ground. Her fingers brushed the shattered glass face, marveling at the delicate ruin laid out before her.

This could be Julius’s. This could be Vivaldi’s. This could be any of my friends.

“Thank you for everything,” she whispered, and pulled out a perfectly serviceable handgun from her apron. “I won’t forget you. I promise.”

She aimed at the broken watch face, trying not to tremble too much, and pulled the trigger.


“So are we really going to find it?” Pierce asked as both Dee and Dum dashed ahead.

“I’m not sure, to be honest, but we have no better leads,” Gray said, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that more people were here than just the four of them.

The trail between the Forest of Doors and the capital of Spade seemed longer than usual, not helped by the new time-turn of dusk. There was very little sound from deeper in the woods, as if all the animals normally alive were gone. If something was using the atmosphere to its advantage, it was doing a good job of playing mind games.

Pierce’s ears and tail were twitching back and forth, and his knuckle knife was already in hand. Even the twins were in their adult forms; the child forms might have been more comfortable, but they needed the extra boost of power and speed for emergencies.

Which, luck willing, is just a precaution.

“Uhuun,” Pierce whined. “I still don’t understand why we had to come here.”

“From what Gowland was saying, the Country of Spade was the last resting place of the Jabberwock, at least until it woke up.”

The Duke explained that the Jabberwock had been buried beneath the Castle, and it was only an assumption that the Vorpal Blade would be there too. Despite being so knowledgeable about the situation on the whole, Gowland seemed to have only sparse facts about the Jabberwock. The King was even less helpful, and offered no insight on his part.

“This is a bad idea. A very bad idea.”

“If you have a better one, I’m open to suggestions.”

“Running would be nice.”

From up ahead, the twins frantically waved their hands. “Mr. Lizard! Mousie!” Dee yelled. “Get over here!”

“You might get your wish,” Gray said as the two of them sped up.

“Not like this!”

But when they reached the opening between forest and city, Gray didn’t expect to see… darkness.

Nothing but darkness.

Afterimages mobbed the streets like roaches, haunting the roads with an aimless despair. They were everywhere, oozing over the edges of buildings and sliding down walls until they softly splattered on the ground. Irreparable clocks lay strewn about like unloved children’s toys. Every now and then, an afterimage would poke and prod at the clock pieces, but the sound was like nails scraping against the soul.

It was a horrifying picture, and Gray felt that one emotion he’d hidden well for years come rushing up

fear

because what they were seeing was a literal plague of afterimages, an event that only occurred after an epidemic or war when the afterimages were so numerous and desperate that they did something they never did otherwise.

A plague of afterimages didn’t just go after newly-deceased clocks; they would go after clocks in perfectly good working order.

The twins were holding their axes in white-knuckled grips, barely keeping themselves in place although all instincts screamed fight-or-flight. Pierce was crouched on the ground, in a pose suited for jumping up and slashing (or running) at any moment. The four of them stood at the edge of the road, barely breathing in tiny measured gasps.

“Follow me, boys,” Gray murmured, slowly backing up inch by inch. “Don’t say a word.”

They did so with unwavering obedience, and in the time it took them to back up nearly two blocks from the city, time had turned to full midnight.

Gray let out a breath, and leaned against a tree for support. “All right, I think we’re far enough away now.”

“What the hell was that?” Dum demanded.

“When a large population of people die – hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands – this is what you get. A plague of afterimages,” and he explained exactly what the implications were.

He’d seen the twins shift their ages countless times now; it was when they suddenly switched back and sat on the ground in shock that he realized how very over their heads this situation had become.

“We can’t do this,” Pierce said, trying to sound firm but failing miserably. “I don’t wanna die. Let’s go back to Heart.”

Gray wished he could have lit up a cigarette, and settled for playing with one of his throwing knives. “I don’t think that’s an option.”

“Why not?”

“Because the Vorpal Blade is somewhere here, and if we don’t find it, then all of Wonderland will look like that.”

The Dormouse shook his head, as if the denial could prevent such a thing from happening. Tears glistened in his eyes. “What do we do, uhuuhn?”

Although Gray never had any particular affection for either Pierce or Tweedle Dee and Dum, they had agreed long ago to protect Alice and were more than vigilant in their duty. In some ways, it was enough to tell their character in the ways that counted.

So I will do my best to protect them in turn.

“We have no choice but to head to the Castle of Spade, but we need a way to distract the afterimages,” and Gray steeled himself for what would come. “So when the next time-turn comes, I want you three ready to run towards the castle while I lead them away. Understand?”

A triad of eyes stared at him with unwavering intensity.

“Good.”


“Looks like Diamond hasn’t done too badly for itself,” Ace said as the trio wandered out of the Forest. “I mean, all the buildings are still standing.”

“Not terribly reassuring, though, that we have seen no one thus far,” Blood said.

“Maybe they evacuated in time?” Boris shrugged.

“Then why did the Black Rabbit come bleeding to us? And, for that matter, why didn’t more of the Diamond citizens come flocking to Clover and Heart?”

Neither Holder had a good answer, but Blood wasn’t expecting one. Instead, they continued to meander into Diamond’s capital – and towards the castle. Still, it was possible that the people were hiding from the Jabberwock even though it appeared to be gone.

“I would like us to split up to cover more ground,” Blood said. “Boris, have you been here before?”

“Yeah, a bunch of times.”

“Good. I want you to head towards the Train Station. I will take the Graveyard and Museum. You…,” and he trailed off at the sight of Ace’s smiling visage, “just keep walking. Try not to get killed.”

“Aw, come on! I can do searching, too.”

“While the prospect of letting you wander aimlessly through Diamond for time immemorial is amusing, our young lady would be upset if you didn’t return. Boris and I will find you when we need you.”

Ace grumbled a bit more, and when he inadvertently veered off the main road, Blood sighed and let him go.

“You sure about that?” Boris asked. “Letting him go off on his own while a huge evil creature stalks the land?”

“I deeply doubt that Ace will be lucky enough to run into it. Let’s hope that whatever it is, it has left Diamond for now. For us, we will meet at the Castle in about sixty minutes.”

Boris didn’t look like he believed it, but he sped off in one direction while Blood went another way.

It was more than a little unsettling that there were literally no faceless around; although he didn’t usually give a second thought to the people, there was no denying that they were a natural part of his surroundings. Cities had people to give it life, and this one was sorely lacking. Now that they were gone… it felt like a definite sign of this country’s destruction.

Likely dead, Blood thought. The Jabberwock either ate them, or destroyed them.

Judging by the lack of clock parts on the ground, he could take a good guess as to the answer. And that meant that the Jabberwock not only a lot of new life energy in its stores, but also a whole cadre of afterimages to manipulate.

Wonderful. Simply marvelous.

Finally, he reached the Graveyard and pushed aside the gates with his cane. The creaking of old metal was enough to set his nerves on end; the sight of so many tombstones marking absolutely nothing only fueled his carefully controlled anxiety.

“Gravekeeper! It’s Blood Dupre, the Hatter, here to speak on behalf of Heart and Clover.”

No response.

“Jericho Bermuda! Answer me!” he tried again, walking deeper into the graveyard.

Just the motion of trees and grass in the evening breeze to answer him.

He changed the cane to a machine gun, holding it casually in one hand but sharply vigilant. The silence was almost painful, and every tiny sound made by nature – birdsong, leaf rustling, his own clock-tick – just increased the sense of anticipation.

But his vigilance had only been a precaution; nothing else appeared in the graveyard. And when he went into the Museum, it too was noiseless. Only the sound of his footsteps echoing on the tile floor showed evidence of life. Even the paintings were quiet, as if someone had turned them into truly lifeless images.

And no Jericho to be found. Which can mean nothing good.

At the end of it, Blood shut the metal gates and headed up towards the Castle. He wandered a bit, keeping an ear and eye out for an aberrant red jacket along with anything else out of place. Soon enough, however, he reached the gates and saw Boris already standing there, almost dancing on the balls of his feet.

“Feeling a bit high-strung, Cat?”

“This place gives me the creeps. Nothing at the Station or on the way over. This is a freakin’ afterimage town, without the afterimages.”

“We’re quite lucky to have seen none thus far. Imagine if the country was filled with them.”

Boris’s tail actually fluffed up in nervousness. “Yeah, I’m done with this place.”

“Except we haven’t checked the castle. Crysta may have, though some stroke of luck, survived the encounter with the Jabberwock.”

“Tell me you don’t actually believe that.”

“Absolutely not,” Blood said with a completely straight expression. “The Black Rabbit said as much. But we don’t know if it left any clues behind or information about where it might strike next, and how.”

“Fine. I still think it’s a stupid idea, though.”

“Duly noted. Go look for Ace.”

He may have been resistant, but Boris understood an order when he heard it. In the meantime, Blood stalked around the courtyard, looking for anything… well, just about anything.

Though I would not be particularly upset if we found nothing here, if only for the reason that anything of value we may find could well turn out to be something quite dangerous.

Then, as he came around to the front doors, he noticed something odd. There was water on the ground, right at the huge double doors, and slowly dripping down a handful of stone steps. It had been a perfectly clear day, as usual, so no reason for a puddle to be increasing in size.

Odd. Where did that come from?

Survival instincts kicked up as he took a step towards the closed gates, and he immediately thought better of moving in that direction. Best wait until the other two are back.

Nighttime had fallen by the time Boris returned, fuming mad, with a still-cheerful Ace in tow. “This idiot kept trying to take shortcuts back!”

“Hey, I knew we’d get back here eventually,” Ace said, looking not the least bit guilty over Boris’s exasperation. If they hadn’t been in such a dire situation, Blood would have enjoyed watching the two of them play against each other.

As it was, there was no time for rest or other amusements. He simply stood up, having taken his repose on a well-sized stone a little away from the gates, and brushed off his trousers. “Then, since we are all in attendance, shall we go pay our respects to the Queen of Diamonds?”

The three walked together through the gates and into the courtyard, and as soon as Ace opened the doors, Blood finally saw why there was water seeping out from under the cracks.

Because the whole castle, inside spreading out, was covered in ice.


Nightmare let out a deep sigh as he brought himself back into the Tower from the dream-walk. Too many things happening at once, and so little of it was positive.

Gray and the afterimages. Blood and the ice castle. Alice looking for answers and finding none; Vivaldi coordinating a plan of attack.

Elliot and Joker running through two countries like my personal war scouts while I sit here and try to outwit a creature billions of time-turns old. I’m not sure which is worse.

He was quite aware that his only strengths were psychic; which, if Gowland and the King were to be trusted, made him of very little help against the Jabberwock. Telepathy couldn’t pierce the thoughts of something so utterly inhuman, never mind that it didn’t have the ability to dream. His predecessor had fallen trying to defeat it; it was why some poor, sickly, useless kid had been pulled into the job all those years ago.

“Feeling sorry for yourself, Lord Nightmare?”

Nightmare glared up at the intruder. Black Joker paraded into the room, looking as playful (read, unwanted) as always. “I mean, if I were you, I’d be sorry too. Can’t fight, can’t run, can’t do a damn thing. Sad, sickly incubus.”

“If you’re here to highlight my faults, I assure you that Gray does it often enough to last multiple Games. Go away.”

“I’m here to talk, though. I just went to visit Alice at the Hatter’s mansion. They’re quite hard at work, pouring over all those books. In fact, it looks like the Prime Minister found something interesting,” Joker said, taking a lazy seat on the desk, just to be as obnoxious as possible. “Want to hear?”

Nightmare didn’t bother with pleasantries. He simply pulled the information from Joker’s thoughts without delicacy; it made the other man wince, which was gratifying.

And then he felt himself go cold from head to toe, and tasted blood at the back of his throat.

“You’re sure of this? White wasn’t making it up?”

“Doubt it. He actually brought the book back from Heart Castle. Dates back to, oh, a time when we still tried to keep track of time. Probably a good six or so generations of Prime Ministers before him.”

“Plus,” Black Joker added, “White’s not nearly as creative as I am. He wouldn’t know a good practical joke if it bit him in the ass.”

“Any other good news for me?”

“If we find something exciting, we’ll be sure to stop by. I am heading back to prep the circus for a brand new production. Everyone’s going to love it,” Joker said congenially as he hopped off the desk. “And don’t look so depressed, Lord Nightmare. Most people would be thrilled to be the shadow king running the whole show.”

He made a tossing motion as he left the room, and a rose landed on the paperwork. When Nightmare reached for it, the rose turned into a black rabbit and hopped out of the room, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in its wake.

“Fall off a tightrope. A lot!” he yelled at the now-absent Joker, throwing himself into a coughing fit. He made a vague gesturing motion at the door as he stood up, and it shut and double locked itself. At the same time, he headed over to the cabinet, took a calming breath as soon as the paroxysms subsided, and opened the doors.

Joker’s thoughts continued to ring in his head. “When the Jabberwock eats someone, it gains the person’s shape, weapon, and memories. However, if it gets the Incubus, it gains the ability to travel through dreams – and into the Outsider’s world.”

He pulled out a tiny bottle of medicine, wiped it off with a handkerchief, and took one of the nearby syringes. With a shaking hand, he managed to draw up a few milliliters of fluid and tap away the extra bubbles. To distract himself, he pulled out a pill from three different bottles.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the Jabberwock had access there? Infinite hearts, ready for the plucking.”

Tossed the pills in his mouth, followed them down with a chaser of water, trying vainly to ignore the awful taste. Then he took off his jacket, and rolled up the left arm’s sleeve.

“It is going to come for you, you know.”

“I hate this, I hate this, I hate this,” he muttered over and over as he put the needle against his left deltoid.

“Better do something before you’re the reason that Alice’s world comes to an end.”

He punctured skin and depressed the plunger in one smooth motion. The medication burned like a son of a gun, making him bite his lip, and he waited for the feeling to pass. With another deep breath, Nightmare pulled out the needle and dropped it on the cabinet table. He barely managed to wobble over to the nearby couch before his legs gave out.

Although he hated needles and drugs with a passion, they weren’t the only reason why he avoided the hospital. He had long ago figured out that the weaker he was physically, the more abilities he had – telepathy, flight, hypnotism, perhaps more. Conversely, the healthier he felt, the more his talents diminished until the only thing he could do was dream-walk.

Perhaps it was Wonderland’s way of keeping him from becoming the most powerful Role Holder; that, or its god-awful sense of humor. Whatever the reason, Nightmare had never given a Dormouse’s ass about being physically weak when he was infinitely more comfortable on the psychic planes… but now things were different. Joker was right; he was a target as much as Alice.

I may not have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually doing any damage against the Jabberwock, but there is one thing I can do – keep it from getting into Alice’s world.

Even if it meant losing his powers one by one.

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