An undefined amount of time after ‘All’s Fair in Love and War’
Two cards marched along past the patches of tall grass, each of their steps letting out a squishing noise upon pressing against the puddles on their path. Trumparts, of which a spade led the way with a stern gaze ahead, followed by a club shyly gazing about in anxious half-paranoia.
“–in actual fact, we shouldn’t have anything to fear.” Continued the club, words contrasting what emotions her demeanor betrayed. “It hasn’t been five days since the last wave occurred, so we are safe for at least another tw–“
The spade halted and lifted her hand, silencing and stopping the one behind her. Though the spade still sported her stern gaze, the club stared in all directions in wonder at what made her stop, to then take a few steps aside towards the edge of the tall grass patch, as if hiding from the unknown. The spade remained where she was, and soon enough a flock of birds broke out from up ahead, a chorus of flapping noises startling the one who hid.
The further they flew, the quieter became the sound. In due time, it subsided almost in its entirety. The spade turned her head about and glanced at her companion, before gesturing with her hand to move on. Though it took a second to regain their composure, the club picked up the pace onward.
Still their minds kept the justifiable skepticism over what startled the birds, but as they marched forth, past the edge of a tall grass patch they saw movement. The same place the birds had flown from, seeing the humanoid silhouettes that caused the spade to immediately halt and extend her arm aside with spear in the other, a clear enough alert for the club. Five silhouettes marched ahead, only for one to turn his head and spot the two cards. It halted in place, then another, and another, till the two cards and the five unknowns remained staring at each other in dead silence.
The one telling characteristic of the opposing group, however, were the dark circles they sported under their eyes.
At least, till in absolute fear the club nocked her arrow and drew her bow. Before she could aim, however, the spade had gently placed her hand on the bow and pressed down, urging her to lower it. As suggested, the club complied, leaving the two groups to stare.
Little afterwards, the first which had turned its head turned forward and marched again, followed by the other four. The same way they had headed to, they continued, leaving the cards be. Within short time, they escaped sight.
Narrowing her eyes, the spade took a few seconds to herself in thought. Then, she gestured with her hand to return, deciding to turn around and march back the way they came from.
Though empty and desolate save for the few critters here and there, skepticism and caution had cemented themselves in his mind. For every step over the old path, the thoughts of eyes staring at him from the woods he travelled through never subsided, with the great quantity of trees of all varying sizes and shapes rendering it such a tempting environment for stalkers and ambushes.
His hand had already grown used to the shape of his sword’s handle, always resting upon it. The woods of Wonderland aided him in no way to ease his sense of impending doom, not only due to the tempting target for monsters of a human marching alone in the woods, but so too due to the woods themselves looking too mundane and boring for what he had in mind; almost as if the forest belonged to any other territory, even that of The Order without any demonic energy to alter its looks nor atmosphere. Added to the mundane looks, so too did he find it colder than he’d have thought; every breath which escaped him turned visible ahead of him, and still he felt little cold spots underneath his heavy clothing, that which remained not only below his armor but so too below his cloak.
Rather than the fear of being in territory he’d rather not be in, it turned into the fear of being in territory he had imagined would look exceptionally different.
“Man of the hour!” A voice cheered up high, startling him enough to snap towards the source with hand ready to draw his sword.
A cat, standing over a branch with a great smile looking down upon him. Boasting in tone and demeanor, just now lowering her arms previously extended aside. Too different from a normal cat for him to assume her one, too fancy-looking compared to those he had heard of, with both hair and clothing holding a black and white checkerboard motif.
“A great soldier of virtue and valor, how will he fare?” She continued in equal tone. “Will he end a savior, or in the mud with the rest of all? Will he return victorious, or remain forevermore locked with us to join the chorus of mad howls out of key?”
Blinking blankly, his fright soon died down enough for him to stand relaxed, though still with confusion in his eyes.
“What?” He asked, dumbfounded.
“You come here with nothing of clarity in your mind? So, o would-be savior, where are you headed?”
“Somewhere.” He answered, still with skepticism within him.
“I wouldn’t worry too much, then. You’ll get somewhere, if you keep walking long enough.”
A strange sense of familiarity befell him. Something about the cat poked at his mind, yet he knew not what it was. Still, certainty remained that he had never seen her before; never in his life had he seen a cheshire cat, let alone gone to Wonderland.
“What am I gonna run into if I keep walking this way?”
“Well, in that direction,” she extended her palm up ahead where the path divided in two, aiming to the left side, “you’ll find a few clubs and spades scattered about. In that direction,” she pointed to the right, “you’ll find hearts and diamonds dancing about. Visit either you like. They’re both mad.”
“Any path that won’t run me into mad people?”
“Oh, I’m afraid not. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“I’m mad? Why?”
“Why else would you be here, o knight?”
Letting his shoulders drop, he let out a sigh before turning about and marching off to where he once headed.
“Might I make a suggestion before you depart?” She said, making him halt and only turn his head partly. “Avoid the hearts and diamonds. They’ll be a little… too mad for your tastes. Well, it’s not like the spades will be too ecstatic about seeing a man of The Order show up out of the blue, either.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
“Can’t you guess already?” She said. Before he could say anything, however, his eyes widened in full upon seeing her slowly disappear, as if phasing off into the ether. Yet, only her grin remained visible and unchanged, till once all her body had disappeared, it followed suit in equal manner.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” She said from another direction entirely. Already unnerved enough beforehand, he snapped towards the source, to find her jumping down from a branch further down the path he’d have taken. “I want to see the look on their faces when I present them the man I ended up snatching~”
Nervousness turned to irritation upon her last words. Still, he decided to march ahead with her.
The old path took the cheshire and the armored man to a colorful town. Buildings of all shapes and colors flanked each cobblestone road within, of questionable architecture leaving it all like a caricaturesque picture to his eyes, complemented by mushrooms the size of trees over a few patches of multicolor grass. On the other hand, the cloudy skies left it all with a grayish-blue tint, with the cold aiding in granting it an atmosphere opposite to what looked straight out of a book for children.
The cheshire’s heels and the man’s heavy boots left a clear distinct sound upon each step on the cobblestone road, allowed by the dead silence of the town and the nonexistent winds without even a simple breeze. Though silent as one, the town had been anything but desolate, with him finding a great many inhabitants staring at him as he passed. Monsters, all sharing a card motif of spades and clubs as the cheshire had once said, looking on with skepticism and confusion at their surprise guest with spears and bows in hand.
“Aren’t you glad I offered to be with you?” Asked the cheshire, a smug aura undeniable.
“Are you saying they’d have jumped on me?”
“Not for the reasons you’d think.”
Arriving to what seemed a town hall, the cheshire opened the doors without regard to subtlety. Within, more trumparts stood of ever greater rank, startled at first yet soon growing equal confusion as those outside upon seeing the cheshire’s companion follow in. The two then arrived to the centerpiece of the hall, a giant table left a mess on top with Lord knew what mass of papers and other objects, yet what caught his eye turned out to be two trumparts in specific at the other end: A two of spades, and an ace of clubs.
“Well, my job here is done.” Cheered the cheshire. “See you later!”
“What?!” He ranted, only to see her vanish like before. His nervousness didn’t dissipate one bit, now left alone among those who stared with an eyebrow raised. Most suspcious of all remained the two of spades, narrowing her eyes at him.
“You don’t behave like the others.” She said, stern and distant. “There isn’t even a hint of demonic energy within you either. Who are you and what are you doing here? Did you get lost?”
At a loss for words upon the sudden questioning, he mustered his strength and forced his composure to return.
“I am Paladin Maverick of Nostrum. I was sent here by the lilim Victoria once she feared the ones Variland and Nostrum fought ran this way.”
“A paladin…?” She said almost in whisper, slight disbelief reflected not just in her tone but also by her furrowed brows. “A paladin?!” She broke out loud. “So that damned lilim knows what’s going on here, and not only does she send one simple human, but a paladin of The Order of all people?! Is this a joke?! An insult?!” All stares had switched from Maverick to the two of spades, her ruckus leaving all in nervous fright. “What’s a paladin going to do other than getting stabbed and captured?! Lord knows what that damned sorceress did to our queen, and some random lilim in the middle of nowhere thinks a paladin will solve what all of us combined couldn’t! Oh, give me a break…”
“Sorceress? Nyarlathotep?” He asked, but the two of spades at the same time stormed off. Ignorance or merely not having heard, Maverick knew not, but upon glancing at the ace of clubs, he found her with a look of surprise upon her.
“You know her name?” She asked. The ace: a stereotypical librarian in looks, of glasses and neatly arranged hair, with an outfit to match while still holding the motif of a card.
“Yes. She was in Nostrum and Variland time ago. If she’s here, I can imagine what’s going on.”
“Well, at least you know now. Although, I still have to agree with the two of spades that you won’t be of much help.”
“It doesn’t matter at this point. What happened, then?”
Before she could even open her mouth, a few sets of steps left them both to turn and see who arrived. A spade and a club, taking notice of Maverick with confused looks yet still marching up to the great table.
“You’re here earlier than I thought.” Said the ace.
“Yes.” Replied the spade. “We found more of those with dark circles under their eyes,” she said, gaining Maverick’s immediate attention, “but they seemed to ignore us entirely. It’s not that they didn’t see us, they even locked eyes with us, but they just… left. I didn’t risk us staying with them around, so we couldn’t look for what you asked.”
Crossing her arms, the ace let out a small sigh before returning to Maverick.
“I want to believe you’ll have your use if you have first-hand experience, and with how a lilim sent you I’m sure there’s a good few reasons why a man of The Order would even want to help monsters, but the hope just isn’t there.”
“I am aware, but I’m still here for a reason.” He answered.
“Very well. Still, there’s much that happened. Strange people show up, the Queen of Hearts goes missing, suddenly the center of Wonderland is off-limits, the weather changes into some manner of storm brewing up, Hearts and Diamonds go nuts… There’s enough to speak of for months, and I still need to coordinate with the rest of the clubs to figure out what’s even going on. It’s too much for what little time available I have, so you’ll have to learn at your pace while you’re here.”
Though the ace departed in the same direction as the two of spades, Maverick soon heard the spade from the ground of two approach him, gaining his attention.
“Aren’t paladins supposed to fight against monsters?” She asked, curious. “What’s one doing here, sent by a lilim no less?”
“Uhh, long story.”
“Killjoy. Anyways, the club and I are bound to get sent out again with how we came back with our hands empty. If you want, and the ace doesn’t find anything for you to help with, you can tag along with us. Might be good for you to see what you got yourself into by coming here.”
“I’ll… keep that in mind.”
With a thumbs up, the spade departed the way she came from. After a few curious glances his way, the club followed suit, leaving him to his own devices.
Without the ace nor the two of spades, without the cat nor the pair of cards he had just met, he remained in wonder at what to even do.