Chapter 5: Don’t Look Back; You Can Never Look Back
“Alice. Are you there?”
“Hm?” and she blinked for a few seconds before realizing, I’m dreaming. “Oh, Nightmare.”
The Incubus floated in front of her; even when it was just the two of them, he never stood on the ground like a normal person. It always added to his rather playful personality, but now he radiated an air of tension. Like something between fear and anger.
“Gray and the others are coming back to the Hatter’s Mansion.”
Relief flooded through her. “Oh, that’s great! I was so worried about them!”
And now his expression was so pained she actually felt it like a slap. “Nightmare, what’s wrong? What happened to them? Is someone…?” and she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.
“Dead? No, despite their best efforts. But, dear Alice… sometimes there are worse things than dying,” he said, almost too softly to be heard. “You’ll want to wake up soon, but I don’t think I’ll see you again for a while. I’ll be watching from the shadows, though.”
“Nigh-” but she never finished, as the sounds of footsteps and rising voices suddenly shook her awake. It took a few seconds to remember that she had fallen asleep on Blood’s couch with a book over her breast, but both Julius and Peter was gone. All she knew was that the noise was getting louder and louder, and Alice jumped to her feet and dashed outside. All small line of Hatter faceless was running towards the front hall, and Alice immediately joined them.
“What’s going on?”
“The Lizard has returned, but it’s not good!” one man said, and Alice wished she hadn’t asked.
She wanted to believe everything would be fine because the thought of anything going wrong was too much to bear. But the reality was that Nightmare had tried to warn her about something, and he wasn’t one to worry for nothing.
Oh please, please let them be okay. Please let me see them one more time.
Then she finally hit the great hall, and saw –
Pierce yelling for help, tears in his eyes
Gray and Julius talking furiously with two doctors, bent over a body
Dum clutching someone’s hand, pale and shaking
And she saw that it was his brother’s hand, his brother’s body on the ground -
“DEE!” she screamed, pushing people to the side before falling to her knees at Dee’s side.
Dee, whose left arm was missing, the too-cleanly cut stump spilling blood while a double flash of white bone winked out from the hole. Her hand fisted up his jacket, as if to hold his spirit down though it tried to disappear. There were muscles and tendons and skin and
Something covered her eyes. “Don’t look, Alice,” Pierce said, his voice a mouse-like whisper. “I know you don’t like this. You don’t have to look.”
But she couldn’t stop seeing it, and Pierce didn’t say anything about the tears falling against his fingers.
“We’ll take care of him,” a male voice said, then barked out orders to all the people standing around. In what seemed like an eternity, the sounds all faded away – and someone peeled Dee’s coat from her fingers – until all she could hear was her heartbeat and feel Pierce’s shaking hands against her eyes.
“Alice,” and Gray’s voice was raw as he enveloped her in his arms, burying her face in his shoulder. “Alice, I’m so sorry.”
“Gray, what happened?” she asked, so faintly that it might as well have been a breath. She could even hear the ticking of his clock, going faster than she’d have ever thought possible.
“Spade was compromised. Nothing left but afterimages. We got out of it alive, but Dee was poisoned.”
Pierce burst in, “If we didn’t do it, he’d have poisoned you, too! He didn’t wanna hurt you!”
It took another few moments for understanding to kick in. Dee knew he was poisoned, he told them to help….
Alice just wrapped her arms around Gray’s chest. “You saved him, right? Then you did everything you could.”
A deep sigh, like a man pardoned before the firing squad. He gave her one final squeeze before letting go, taking care to wipe away her tears with a thumb. “Thank you. But I have one last place to go before we sit and talk. Where’s Gowland?”
Surprisingly, Julius answered. “At Heart Castle, with both King and Queen. The Rabbit just ran over there was some new information.”
Gray’s eyes suddenly became more golden, almost foreign in their viciousness. Although she knew he had a darker side, Alice had never seen it before. Now, a tiny shiver went through her as he said, “Then, I will be heading over to the Castle for a nice, long talk with the Duke.”
Alice insisted on visiting Dee before leaving. He had been whisked away into one of the spare bedrooms (likely because no one wanted to take the chance of entering the Bloody Twins’ bedroom and accidently setting off a random explosive or dealing with sharp weaponry while doing their job). Now he was resting quietly, with Dum at his side and resting in his child form.
The doctor carefully pulled the sheet back. “Obviously, there was no hand left to save, but the Lizard did everything he could by combat medicine standards. The cut was completely clean. We had to make some adjustments to protect the internal muscle and vasculature from infection, but I’ll spare you details.”
“Will it heal?”
“To be honest, we don’t know. Role Holders usually heal in a few time-turns, but whether or not his arm grows back is… uncertain. I’m sorry.”
Read, unlikely. “No. Thank you for everything you did,” she whispered. The arm began just below the elbow, and wrapped all the way up to the shoulder. Someone must have been changing the bandages regularly because they were still pristine white. Whatever bleeding he’d had downstairs had been taken care of and, miracle of miracles, he was sleeping quietly.
My brave boys.
Alice dropped a kiss onto each twin’s forehead. “If they wake up, tell them we’ll be back soon.”
“Will do, miss. Good luck.”
Gray and Julius were both waiting at the front door when she returned. “Where’s Pierce?”
“Getting some rest, I believe,” Julius said. “Shall we?”
The trio initially traveled in silence. Alice didn’t really care for the tension that was thrumming through both men, and finally broke the ice. “This is probably a bad way to start a conversation, but I guess you didn’t find the Vorpal Blade.”
Both Role Holders looked at her with surprise, and she gave a mirthless laugh. “I didn’t see anyone carrying a sword, and you were so wretched that I assumed the worse. Unless you’re just really, really good at poker and keeping secrets.”
“Poker, yes. Not this,” Gray said, and a few muscles in his jaw jumped in anger.
Alice finally saw that they were moving away from the Castle, and for a moment she wondered if Ace’s poor sense of direction was contagious. Then she saw the Circus come into view and knew….
“Looking for me?”
Joker’s voice came from behind them, and both Julius and Gray spun around faster than her eyes could follow. Hostility radiated from both men, though Joker didn’t seem to notice – or care.
“We need to get to Heart Castle,” Alice said without prelude.
“Ah, you want a card game!” Joker smiled broadly. “But wouldn’t you know it – I, too, need to visit the Castle. All sorts of stories are being carried on the wind. Dark spades, crystal diamonds, the usual.”
Gray’s eyes narrowed at the reference to Spade, and Julius said, “What game are you playing now, Joker?”
“No games, I assure you. Aren’t we all on the same team? In fact, to show my sincerity, I’d be willing to overlook the card game this time if I may walk with our pretty little Alice.”
Neither man replied.
“Well, I leave the decision in your hands. We can either leave now, or I play a few rounds against Alice and take up both of our precious time.”
Both brunettes gritted their teeth, but practicality won out and they agreed. To her relief, Joker was much more conversational than the other two, and helped her keep up a steady stream of meaningless talk to fill the space. He spoke about a new show and training the circus performers as if an evil creature wasn’t secretly stalking the land. Still, it was a nice distraction, and Alice smiled and listened because it kept her from thinking about Dee’s missing arm.
The trip was otherwise uneventful, and she made a mental note of how quiet the streets were, as if the people were buttoning down for a storm (or a war). When they reached the front gates of the castle, the soldiers were at sharp attention, and one even bowed and offered to lead them to the war room.
“I didn’t know Vivaldi had a war room,” she whispered as he led them down the halls.
“You can’t possibly be surprised,” Julius said. “The Queen is nothing if not constantly poised for war with the Amusement Park and the Hatters.”
It made perfect sense, really, but she’d never thought much of it. It took another handful of minutes to get there, buried deep in the heart of the castle; when they arrived, the soldier politely knocked, bowed properly, and announced their arrival with grave solemnity.
“I present Miss Alice, Joker, the Clockmaster, and the Lizard.”
It was a large room, fitted with a large table that could have seated all fifteen Role Holders with plenty of room to spare for an Outsider or two. Countless papers covered the tabletop, likely maps and so forth. Peter was there, discussing something with both Vivaldi and Gowland as the latter pointed to the map, but everyone looked up at the new arrivals.
Before anyone had the chance to breathe, Gray moved like a shadow. One moment he was standing at Alice’s side; the next, he threw Gowland against the wall with an arm under his chin, lips curled in an angry snarl as his other hand held a blade against the Duke’s heart.
“Damn, he’s pissed!” Black Joker said.
“Gray!” Alice yelled. She ran up and grabbed his arm, but Gray didn’t budge an inch. It was like trying to move a sculpture of granite. “Gray! Stop it!”
“Explain yourself, Lizard!” Vivaldi demanded.
“He lied to us! Dee lost his arm no good goddamn reason, and I want blood and answers!”
Alice pulled away, for once terrified of the usually gentle man, and even Peter didn’t dare step forward. Gowland, to his credit, didn’t lose the calm expression on his face despite likely pain in his head and spine. “Tell me when I lied.”
“You said the Vorpal Blade was in Spade, and we found nothing. The little bit we did find said, in no uncertain terms, that it was never there to start with. So tell me, Duke, what the hell kind of game are you playing?”
Gowland’s expression jumped to genuine alarm. “What… I don’t get it. He told me th -” and now his expression turned cold. “Oh, that lyin’ son of a bitch!”
He pushed himself out of Gray’s grip, who in turned seemed to believe the other man’s indignity. “Who lied, and who do I kill now?”
“That would be us.”
Everyone turned to the King, standing placidly in the doorway. To Alice, he didn’t look like his usual ineffective self. All of a sudden, there was a darkness surrounding him that she didn’t understand and had never seen before. Even Vivaldi was leaning away from him, though she stood a distance away at the table.
“Gowland did not lie, Lizard. He simply was not told the truth.”
“Your untruths, then.”
Alice shook her head; this didn’t make sense. “But I don’t get it. If Gowland was at the previous Game, wouldn’t he have known that the Vorpal Blade wasn’t real?”
The king didn’t speak. It was not so much hesitation as a simple disinclination to use words.
“Tell us!” Vivaldi demanded, her words ringing sharply through the air.
“He didn’t know because we had told him that the Vorpal Blade did exist.”
“How could you lie? We were under the impression that both of you had seen the end of the last game,” Peter said.
Again, silence from the king. Gowland crossed his arms and said, “If you don’t get to th’ point, I will.”
An emotionless look before he finally said, “Because Gowland was here in Heart, and both Outsider and Jabberwock fought their final battle in Spade. Hence why they were buried there.”
Still didn’t make sense, and he kept drawing it out.
“One last chance, Yer Highness.”
Now, he took a deep, almost painful breath. “Before I became the King of Hearts, I was the Knave of Spades.”
Now, chaos exploded in the room, with a dozen voices speaking over each other while nothing of meaning was said.
“You can do that?” Alice gaped. “Switch roles?”
“It’s not a common occurrence, but yes. It’s not like we make that decision,” Gray said.
“Pretty rare, actually,” Joker said. “I wonder how he managed to earn that piece of hard luck.”
Gowland clapped his hands. “Oye! Attention, everyone! I think we’re ‘bout to hear part of the story that I missed.”
Everyone’s eyes turned back to the King, who stood with the same stillness that Ace occasionally did when he wasn’t quite right. “The original plan had been to lure the Jabberwock to Spade; Heart had taken one too many blows, and wouldn’t survive a full-out war. So we played the bait, and drew the Jabberwock into a portal made by the prior Joker and King of Hearts before they died. From there, it led to the underground corridors of Spade Castle.”
“I heard George found the Blade in Spade,” Gowland said. “He didn’t manage to kill the damn thing, but wore it down and kept it from comin’ up and eatin’ the world.”
“The truth is that, as the Lizard so wisely noted, George never found the Vorpal Blade,” and the King looked at Alice. “He never figured out where it was. As such, he knew that he would die fighting the Jabberwock.”
It was like a punch in the stomach, and Alice braced herself against the table.
“So he made us swear a vow – that we would protect Wonderland at the cost of all else.”
Tears welled up in her eyes because I know where this is going. I know what he’s going to say.
“And as he whittled the Jabberwock’s energy away, we hid away and watched him fight a losing battle. At the last moment, ready to fall and be devoured by that thing, we… I killed him. It was by my sword that he was impaled upon, destroying his heart and sending the Jabberwock back into dormancy.”
Again, chaos and words and fire unrelenting. In a way, their defiant passion over killing an Outsider (killing me) was somewhat comforting. Maybe a little piece of everyone here did understand how she felt when they talked about killing each other like it was nothing. But the way the king looked, that immovable quiet, made her realize something. Although he toyed with Vivaldi’s feelings and was by no means a “nice” man, he never made light of killing the faceless.
He understands, too.
Before anyone could stop her, Alice went up to the king – and hugged him. Peter yelped in anger, but something must have been holding him back because she was given the moment. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt his arms go hesitantly around her.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “Was he – George – was he your friend?”
A minor tightening. “Yes. He was a dear friend when we had been ‘Johann’ rather than ‘King of Hearts’. It was the last gift we could give him, knowing that his death would not be in vain. Still, it is a weight we shall never stop carrying.”
She wiped her tears against his fur-covered robes, then realized how incredibly rude she was being. However, he softly tilted her chin up and rubbed the tears away with a sleeve. “You remind us of him. He was a gentle soul, though he had been a young soldier before falling into Wonderland. He did not love war any more than you do. Neither world was kind to him, though we are grateful that he came to us.”
Finally, someone cleared their throat and she pulled away. This time, she stood next to Julius and leaned against him.
“So why did you send me and the others on a wild goose chase if you knew there was no Blade to be found?” Gray asked, now back to his usual impeccable self.
“There had been a poem repeated for generations upon generations of Wonderland folk, telling of the Jabberwock’s story. It states how to find the Blade, though we do not know of any Outsider who succeeded.”
“This poem?” and he pulled a sheet of paper from his jacket. “It’s absolutely nonsensical.”
“It is all we have,” the King said, holding his hands out in helplessness. “It has only been seen and written on the stones that bury the Jabberwock’s sleeping form.”
Everyone crowded around to read it; by the time she had finished, Alice knew that she was going to die. There were too many people talking, and her head just kept spinning around all the meaningless words on the paper.
Then there was a sound like a hammer hitting wood, and a stern voice saying, “Everyone, calm down.”
Alice looked at Julius, who was holding his wrench and standing above a now-missing chunk of table. Vivaldi said, in a voice of diamond anger, “Would you care to explain why you chose to destroy part of our table, Clockmaster?”
“While it’s quite enjoyable to wallow in our helplessness, we don’t have the time for it. Let’s work with what we have, instead,” he said, dissipating the wrench and turning the poem around. “So, if we take-”
The door slammed open a second time, making everyone jump and spin; Peter, Gowland, and Gray all had their weapons at the ready when three bloodstained bodies stumbled through.
“Wait! Don’t shoot!” Alice shouted, running forward just as the trio started to fall. Her brain barely registered Boris-Ace-Blood through all the destruction, but two things happened; she caught Blood around the shoulders, and she heard an ominous word.
Her head snapped up, and through the door she saw a faceless woman with blood on her hands reaching out to grab her. But Julius kicked the door shut just as she reached it; something large slammed into the wood, making Alice shriek, but the sound didn’t repeat itself.
Then she looked down at an injured Blood in her lap, and he said, “Good to see you too, sweetheart,” before his eyes closed and he went completely limp.
“Guards!” the King yelled, and soldiers flowed into the room like a red sea. But rather than bearing weapons, many came in with medical kits and stock. Vivaldi stepped up to Alice’s side, her expression queen-calm though her fingers were shaking.
“Foolish man, getting himself hurt like this,” she whispered, looking down at him though Alice knew she ached to help. “Foolish, foolish man.”
Three medics came forward to take the unconscious man from her hands, and she stepped back to give them space to work. Now that she had a moment to breathe, with everyone else in the room helping the trio, she took stock of the wounds.
Blood’s legs each had a hole running through, to say nothing of the blood running down his right side. Ace’s shirt and jacket were a mess, like someone had taken a whip to his back and a sword to his chest. And Boris… Boris’s stomach had a gaping hole, giving everyone a very intimate look at his intestines before someone quickly covered it with a literal handful of gauze. His shoulder was almost beyond saving, another hole winking out and soaking his arm. He was blissfully unconscious.
Surprisingly, Ace was awake and chatting amiably with the soldiers applying bandages. “Don’t look so upset,” he said, waving at Alice with a free hand. She sat down next to him, almost numb with shock, and he put the arm around her shoulders. “We Role Holders heal pretty well. This thing here,” and he gestured at his side, which bore a somewhat-open wound, “should be gone in a few time-turns, and I’ll be good as gold.”
Her mind flashed back to the Hatter mansion. “What about lost limbs?”
A laugh. “Don’t be silly. Arms and legs don’t grow back.”
She knew it, of course, but that didn’t make the reality any easier to swallow. “Yeah, I figured as much.”
“Until then, we’ll just get patched up. Besides, we got some stuff to talk about.”
“Like the screaming faceless covered in what was probably your blood?”
“You bet! Damn, you’re smart, Alice.”
“Who, or what, was that?” Gowland asked from his place at Boris’s side.
Hot and cold water ran down Alice’s body, as if her skin couldn’t decide what to feel. It was one thing to hear about a raging, monstrous creature trying to eat her heart; it was quite another to actually look upon the thing.
It saw me. It was covered in blood – their blood – and it wanted to kill me.
“Then, we shall assemble with the remaining Role Holders here,” the King said.
“Might not have enough time for that, Your Highness,” Blood said weakly. A wash of relief as Alice turned and saw him sitting up as the soldiers wrapped his legs and chest (stripped of the jacket and shirt). “It knows Alice is here. More specifically, it knows that she’s here in the Castle. We should think about falling onto our contingency plans sooner rather than later.”
“So how long do we have until the Jabberwock gets here?”
“Seconds, hours, time-turns,” Blood said, wincing as someone probed one of the wounds. “I truly have no idea.”
“Basically,” Black Joker said, “we are screwed worse than a two-bit hoo-”
“That’s enough! Such imagery is unnecessary,” Vivaldi said, cutting off the word and giving Joker a dark look. “We have no choice but to make time to finish our aid, summon the scouting team, and divest ourselves of extra ears. Then Alice shall explain what she found, and we shall explain our plan.”
It actually didn’t take very long for Boris to regain consciousness and the soldiers to complete their duties. Obviously, everyone present had more than a little experience with god-awful wounds; the only difference being who inflicted them. Then a pair of soldiers went out to the Tower to inform Nightmare (and possibly Elliot, if he happened to be around) of the events.
The day switched into twilight, though, and the timing made the tiny hairs on Alice’s neck stand up straight.
Because monsters always eat children when it’s dark outside.
Finally, Alice and the ten sat themselves down around the table; King Johann took the lead. “We now know that the Jabberwock is quite obviously alive and well. Alice, tell us what you and your team have discovered.”
She nodded, and took a deep breath. “So, uhm, it kind of boils down to the fact that the Jabberwock breaks rules. All of them. Pretty much the only rule it’s bound to is that it can only be killed by the Vorpal Blade. And the Blade can only be held by the Outsider.”
“Which is exactly what we knew before we left. Glad our hard work has come to fruition,” Boris groaned.
Julius cut in, his voice covered in ice. “We have also discovered that with each Role Holder it devours, it gains those talents. Controlling the prison from Joker, crossing worlds from the Incubus, so forth and so on.”
“We figured that out, too, quite painfully,” Blood said.
“The Dodo’s not lookin’ so hot these days,” Ace said, then winced when he stretched his arm too much. Out of the three, he seemed to be the one in best shape, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was completely healed. “Probably got Crysta too.”
“Do we have any idea how it travels?” Gowland asked.
“No, nothing has been made clear. We know it steals abilities, so perhaps if it got the Cheshire Cat or someone who can move through the countries very quickly…,” and Alice trailed off, unsure of what to say.
“There is something we did find of relevance,” Julius said. “If the Outsider dies, then the Jabberwock will immediately become – for lack of a better word – its egg form. The best I can understand, that is its stalemate; cannot be killed, but cannot stay alive.”
“That is, of course, not an option,” Peter said, his eyes nearly glowing with fire as he stared at the Clockmaker.
To his credit, the latter didn’t blink as he replied. “Be that as it may, it’s another piece of knowledge.”
Peter and Alice spoke of a few more anecdotes, stories that told of different battles between the Jabberwock and Wonderland and riddles of the Vorpal Blade, but nothing concrete to offer salvation. The group tore apart the poem, but with all the made-up words it was impossible to understand details. No one was happy with the lack of information, but they didn’t appear surprised either.
Gray spoke of the decimated Spade and the plague of afterimages still haunting the country. Blood related another Role Holder’s death, and the run-in with the Jabberwock. Neither team had come from their journeys unscathed.
“Then it is best if we begin outlining the tactics,” Vivaldi said, gesturing for everyone to lean in. Putting aside the broken chunk of table, the group hovered around a newly-minted map of both Heart and Clover, including the areas of overlap and the Circus. Alice was pretty certain you couldn’t actually draw a four-dimensional object on two dimensional paper, but thinking too much about it was making her head hurt and she just let things be.
“Let me be brief,” Vivaldi said, and when Ace snorted she gave him a look to freeze blood. “The majority of the territories overlie each other, with only the Clock Tower and the Tower of Clover truly overlapping in time and space.”
Red and green color fused against each other on the map.
“Normally, the April season prevents people – specifically Alice – from moving between the territories without a distinct invitation from Joker.”
Blue from one of the edges.
“In creating the alliance, Joker has offered Alice freedom to move between the territories during this dangerous time as long as someone else plays on her behalf,” and the blue suddenly turned into roads connecting the five main lands. “It is why the Hare has been moving so freely between the lands.”
Joker smiled benevolently. “Whatever can be done to aid Alice, we will not impede that necessity.”
“Of course,” Vivaldi said, though there was an underlying chill in her voice. “It must be understood that the goal of all Role Holders is not killing the Jabberwock. Instead, if we cannot travel with Alice, we must try to restrain or temporarily incapacitate the creature to buy time for her to continue her search.”
“As such, we are all disposable,” the King said. “It cannot be emphasized enough that our lives are to be given if Alice requires.”
I hate this. I hate this. I hate that they talk about dying like it’s something we’ll just get over, she thought to herself though none of the people in the room looked upset. Instead, they looked rather matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I don’t want them to die.
“Problem is, we don’t know where it’s gonna show up next,” Gowland said. “So we’re kinda wingin’ it.”
“The most likely thing it will do is come through the Forest of Doors. There are already guardsmen standing there, ready to alert us to any sign of danger.”
“Any other portals of entry?” Julius asked.
“All of Wonderland is vulnerable, but nothin’ specific,” Gowland said.
Gray shook his head. “While I hate to be redundant, this isn’t good. We truly have no idea where and when the Jabberwock will appear. Has anyone heard from the Hare recently? Is it possible he’s been taken?”
Alice’s heart sped up; she hadn’t been keeping track of him, as his job involved so much running around. If Elliot had been compromised…
“Perhaps, but we can’t tell at this time. We’ll have to wait until we find him again,” Blood said grimly.
“I can smell it when it’s near,” Boris said. “I’d bet Pierce could, too. If it’s of any reassurance, it’s not here right now.”
That was nice to know, even if it didn’t completely assuage her fears.
Until Julius frowned and said, “Wait a moment. I just…,” and now he looked unnerved. “You said it had already stolen the Dodo’s form, right?”
“Correct,” Blood nodded.
“And the Jabberwock steals knowledge held by the previous form.”
“Get to the point,” Joker said impatiently.
“Then it will know that the Museum has a painting that lets people travel to their clock’s desire. And it knows that Alice is here,” he said, now looking at her with something very close to fear in his eyes. “We have to get you out of here right now.”
Except that before she – anyone – could move, a beautiful silver-haired woman in flowing white and gold robes burst upwards from the map on the table. It was as if she’d ridden an invisible dumbwaiter into view, and her eyes sparkled with delight as she looked around the room.
The woman joyfully exclaimed, “No more hide-and-seek. We found you!”