Derrota’s head had rolled a fair distance. With the diamonds now gone, Maverick raised his helmet’s visor and walked over, to then pick it up from the ground. However, upon turning it to face him, he saw her eyes wide open in eerie lack of focus staring aimlessly ahead, with dark circles under her eyes. Unnerving, like it stared down to his very sanity and soul, feeling anxiety rising just to stare at it, let alone hold it in such close proximity. He wanted to look away, but he could not. Forcibly closing his eyes for a moment, he broke from that hypnotizing morbid curiosity, to then march back to where Derrota’s body lay.
The unafflicted had already begun to help her beheaded body up, as lifeless as it appeared; by the time Maverick arrived, they had managed to keep it in a sitting posture. Maverick placed the head over the neck, to then find that it kept itself in place even as he let go, prompting him to take a few steps back.
For a few seconds, nothing happened, until her fingers began to move. Her eyes followed, closing shut in force as if a headache had sunk in. Conscious enough to keep herself in the position she was put, those around her let go and stepped back as she moved her hands to her head with a faint annoyed sigh. Afterwards, she lowered her arms and twisted her head about, cracking a few times. There and then, Maverick came to see that the dark circles under her eyes had disappeared.
“I didn’t know a lilim could be a dullahan too.” He said.
“The Queen of Hearts is an Alice-mutation lilim, isn’t she?” Said Derrota, slowly standing back up in a test of her motor skills. “That means a lilim could be a mutation of another monster as well. Mom’s demon realm really took a liking to dullahans, so I’m sure you can put two and two together.”
“In any case,” she added, walking over to pick her carbine off the ground, “that should’ve scared them a bit. It’s up to the Ace of Clubs from here on.”
He had nothing more to say. While Derrota walked away, his gaze fell to those around him that still remained. The spades had left for camp already, leaving here only those with dark circles under their eyes and demeanour like automatons, standing idly without a word nor gesture. At least, until Derrota turned and waved, signalling their task over and prompting them to depart as one.
To Maverick, chances were he’d never get used to them.
With the tent’s front pulled aside, Maverick could see the dark clouds in a subtle spiral to the north. He couldn’t pull his eyes away. The same as those in Acerrae, and yet, different somehow. No longer it felt like a sign of hostility or adversity.
Perhaps what differed from back then was him. Looking down, he had not found the appetite to even eat his soup despite so many hours of constant activity. It’d certainly hinder him later on when hunger rears its ugly head, but he could not even bring himself to shove it down his throat.
“You look pained.”
So had said Derrota. Looking aside within the tent, Maverick saw her lying on a sleeping mat staring aimlessly up high. After a silent pause, Maverick returned his eyes to the spiralling clouds.
“I still can’t get myself to believe Rebecca is a monster.” He answered. “It feels… unreal. Like everything’s gonna be just as it was when I get out of here, even if I know it won’t.”
Silence. There was nothing left to say. Following a few moments, Maverick returned his eyes to Derrota.
“What about you?” He asked. “You look different.”
“I usually see you reading that book or doing something else. Lately, though, you’ve been… inactive, I guess.”
With a soft sigh, Derrota slowly sat up.
“I’ve been thinking.” She said. “About them. The ones who helped us scare the diamonds.”
“You know how they didn’t care for a name, and I never needed to name them, right?”
“I was thinking now, about what name they’d have. And why. Lately, I’ve wondered if ‘Hollows’ wouldn’t fit them better.”
A pause. Though Maverick certainly knew she had her reasons, the name itself did not leave any nice implications to be imagined.
“What makes you say that?” He asked.
“Resistance to the affliction isn’t a terribly nice thing when you get captured by them. The true, horrid meaning of ‘Never give up’ begins to show. The affliction keeps gnawing at their soul, and they still persevere, even after losing everything.”
Memories returned, of all the wounds he had received from the afflicted. Acerrae, Makillae, even here in Wonderland by the Afflictor. A chill ran down his spine, hardly bearing to imagine a continuous torture of the same kind. At the same time, Derrota laid back once more onto the mat, staring just as aimlessly as before.
“They are spiritually stuck in an iron maiden draining them of everything.” She continued. “Of hope, of dreams, of future. All that is left is the mind that controls the muscle and that which decides what their goal is, like automatons. Not even their fight or flight instinct works properly anymore. They are left… hollow. And yet, they never give up.”
With her words finished, the two came to hear faint drops against the tent. Early signs of rain, no doubt by what lay in the center of Wonderland. Still, hurried footsteps approached, until a voice shouted out loud afar.
“The hearts are advancing on the northern post!”
Maverick and Derrota both widened their eyes, locking their eyes with each other for a second before jumping to life.
The northern post. A small garrison further into the valley to keep eyes on it, at best. Little more than a few tents and quick, crude wooden structures put together, along with a palisade and a tower.
Maverick and Derrota ran along, but as they arrived to the outpost, they met the sight of the Hearts already withdrawing. Though some spades lay on the ground unconscious, a great many others remained standing, panting, shaken and fired up with what adrenaline must’ve coursed through their veins, all staring at those who withdrew in haste. Past the eerie silence, however, the paladin and the lilim came to see no signs of what damage the Hearts could’ve caused.
And then, the true reinforcements arrived, the Two of Spades leading a detachment.
“They are withdrawing…?” She asked, arriving to Maverick and Derrota. After a quick glance about, she gestured for a spade to approach, namely she who led the garrison. “What happened?”
“Hearts came out of the woodwork, but they suddenly withdrew. Didn’t look like they had anything over tens or nines. They also had this… ‘hive mind’ feel about them.”
Furrowing her brow in confusion, the Two of Spades turned to Derrota and Maverick. “Have you two seen anything similar?”
“I’ve seen cultists move together like a hive mind as well.” Answered Maverick. “I won’t pretend to know why.”
An exasperated sigh escaped the Two of Spades. Yet, at that moment a shout broke out from the garrison’s post.
“One’s coming in!”
‘One’. A singular entity, causing confusion in their minds. All turned their heads northwards, to see with their own eyes the silhouette of one single person approach afar. Curious, Derrota and Maverick moved up to the palisade, where the rest of the trumparts anxiously waited.
A certain dullahan of the Black Hearts, walking with a confident, arrogant smile without a weapon to be seen.
“A little bird told me there was someone special here.” Greeted Melanie as she arrived to the palisade, only to be stopped by numerous spears aimed her way.
However, nothing caused her smile to even waver, ignoring the spears instead.
“We meet again.” She greeted Maverick, to then turn to Derrota. “And who might you be…?”
But Derrota said nothing. At her refusal to speak, Melanie let out a quiet chuckle.
“It’s certainly kind of you to come here.” She added. “I didn’t imagine meeting her daughter until many, many decades down the line, if she ever had one.”
“Nyarlathotep told you, then?” Asked Derrota. “Of all the pets she has, you must be her favorite.”
“Beats being nobody’s favorite here, if these spears are anything to go by.”
Though her pause suggested a request for them to be lowered, neither Maverick nor Derrota said a thing. A quiet exhalation escape Melanie.
“It hardly matters.” She continued. “I only wanted to confirm with my own eyes what I heard, anyway. We might meet again later on. Or not.” She said, to then turn around and depart. As nonchalantly as she arrived, she walked away.
Though Maverick and Derrota followed with their eyes, more sets of footsteps caught their attention in due time. When they turned about, they caught glimpse of the Ace of Clubs approach with a retinue of spades.
“I didn’t find you back in camp.” She greeted the Two of Spades. “I have good news and bad news.”
“Good news first, I’m getting sick of this mess.” Said the Two of Spades, just as Maverick and Derrota approached.
“The good news is that the diamonds are leaving. The bad news, the diamonds are leaving.”
“After that stunt the lilim pulled, the bastards got so scared that they’re basically leaving us to the wolves. I tried to convince their Ace as much as I could to help us, but they want nothing to do with this.”
Without a word, without a movement, the Two of Spades stood immobile staring with a grimace of disbelief and stupefaction. In due time it evolved into a true frown, looking as if she’d blow up in a rant at any second, only to contain herself as she grit her teeth.
“If I don’t see our Ace slapping the shit out of theirs when this is over….” She scoffed. Then, her eyes fell northwards, past the palisade further towards the valley. “In any case, we got them off our backs. We have to figure out how to go from here. Maverick,” she turned to him, “I take it that person who just walked here came from the same place as you.”
“Yeah.” He answered. “She didn’t take the affliction too well. Nor did the others.”
“And if she came from the north, we’re bound to go up against them. How do you imagine we’d fare?”
Maverick glanced around. All the trumparts around him looked well equipped, but not for the battles they’d find themselves in. Spears, swords, but hardly any bows, let alone any training in the particular way Nostrians and Varilandians fought. Picturing them advancing into the valley with the Black Hearts on the other side, with their bows that could punch even through the best armor Nostrum could forge, returned nothing but a miserable result.
“…Badly. I wouldn’t try it with twice our numbers. This valley is suicide.”
The Two of Spades let her shoulders drop, her eyes looking aside aimlessly, lost in though. Derrota, on the other hand, merely turned her eyes to the valley in silence.
“Then what did we even come here for?” Asked the Two of Spades.
“For a nice view, I guess.” Said Derrota.
Her words, in turn, gained the annoyance of the spade.
“We’ll have to march to the next closest passage to the center.” Said the Ace of Clubs.
“I don’t know. By the time we get there, they’d have figured it out and repositioned.” Replied the spade. “We’d be back at square exhausted from marching.”
“Then perhaps you need a secret passage.” Another voice said.
A familiar one, terribly so to both Maverick and Derrota; when all turned their eyes to the source, they found the smug black and white cheshire among the group, having appeared from Lord knows where. Inevitably, either in curiosity or shock, none said a further word.
“The tunnel system those little dormice dug in their hyperactive insomnia reaches far and wide.” She continued. “It goes on and on and on, under mushrooms and trees, under valleys and mountains, even into the center of Wonderland, and those there are none the wiser about it.”
With her words finished, a silent pause took over for a few seconds.
“They dug that far already…?” Asked the Ace of Clubs to herself.
“Can we trust her on that?” The Two of Spades asked the others.
“I would.” Said Derrota, before turning her head to Maverick. “You would as well, wouldn’t you?”
Maverick saw it difficult to respond. Yet, though he didn’t say a yes, he still did not say a no.
In return the spade stared up high to the clouds and the rare drops threatening an ensuing storm, to then purse her lips in impatience.
“It’ll be a while before the hearts decide to make another push. We might have time before they figure out we’re gone.” She said, to then pause in thought. Afterwards, she lowered her head, raising her voice for all the trumparts to hear. “Pack up and move back to camp! We are leaving!”