“Ah, Maverick.” Greeted the Mad Hatter from her table, seeing the paladin approach through the ever wide open door. What smile she had while drinking her tea, so too did the march hare beside her share. “It’s been a while. What brings the visit?”
“Hey. We uh…” He answered, pulling a chair and sitting at the same table. “I heard that the tunnels the dormice dug could lead me and a few others to the center of Wonderland. We’d like free passage.”
Though Maverick imagined her words continuing, they did not. She merely sipped, looking on with an innocent smile.
“You’re not even going to ask how are gonna be stepping into your house?”
“Hm? How many?”
“The entirety of the spades and clubs.”
“Oh, the more the merrier! What big tea party we’d have! Are they staying for a while, or just passing through?”
Maverick frowned in confusion, an expression in such stark contrast to the joy of the hatter and the hare.
“…We’re just passing through.” He answered. “It’ll have to be another time.”
“Very well. Can’t wait!”
With a forced smile in response, Maverick stood up and departed to the front.
Derrota waited outside, as he came to see once he set foot on the porch. Sitting by the steps which connected the wooden floor to the dirt road growing humid as time passed, she read that book he had begun to dread. Elsewhere a little distance away, he could still see the clear signs of the space anomaly the two had used, namely the mildly charred grass and the exposed patch of soil.
“How did it go?” She asked.
“She’s fine with it.”
With nothing left to do other than wait for the spades and clubs, Maverick made his way to the steps and sat down beside her.
‘Don’t look at it’, he told himself, despite his morbid curiosity dictating otherwise. A little look, just that, surely it wouldn’t hurt. ‘Don’t look at it’, he repeated to himself, ‘don’t look at it’.
But he turned his eyes and stole a curious glimpse from the book’s contents. His head immediately began to pound as a sharp headache settled in, forcing a wince out of him as he brought his hand to his head.
“Curiosity may have saved the rats by killing the cat,” said Derrota, still reading her book, “but there’s nothing to say it can’t kill the rat as well.”
Rubbing his temple, Maverick remained silent as the headache gradually dissipated while keeping his eyes closed. Once it was gone, or at least as much as it would, he opened his eyes again to then lazily stare ahead to the horizon.
“You said you got it from your parents.” He said. “Right?”
“Does that mean that it’s the same book Indrick had?”
“Then, could he or Victoria read it?”
Rather than an immediate answer, Derrota took a slow, deep breath.
“Nyarlathotep showed them the book, once. It nearly broke my father. My mother… wasn’t so lucky, as you might’ve figured from her disappearance in that war.”
The power to break a lilim. It simply couldn’t properly sink in, in his mind.
“Is it really that bad?” He asked.
“Imagine…” She said, pausing her words in thought. “A teacher. A teacher trying to cram into you the collective pool of human knowledge in a single afternoon. Naturally, it’s impossible. Go long enough in your studies without rest, and you’re bound to get tired before even getting into proper maths, and learn nothing. Right?”
“Now, imagine if your head was cut open and everything was forced into your mind all at once, from the knowledge of the fibres that make up the universe to the birth and death of stars and galaxies… Along with every disgusting detail you’d have rather never heard of at all. Hundreds of millions of horrors that will haunt your nightmares forevermore. It’d break you. And you’d most likely forget about it all, because the human mental capacity and memory can only go so far, and the universe is under no obligation to make sense to our minds.”
No response. Though he wanted to say something, he simply had nothing, letting the sound of a page turned be what reigned in that moment. That turn of the page, however, left a thought to surface.
“Then, are you immune to it?” He asked.
“No, I’m just used to it. What Nyarlathotep had done to my mother and father carried over to me, making this feel natural already, even if it’s not terribly enjoyable. I’m only a lilim, after all.”
“Then what’s in that book, that you read it so often?”
“The answers to everything that there ever was, ever is, and ever will be. Ironically… the answers are under no obligation to make sense to anyone.”
Though he wanted to look at her with what confusion he sported, he could not, fearing that even his peripheral view could catch what made his head pound in pain.
“Can those horrors really break a person?” He asked himself.
In return, Derrota closed the book to then stare on ahead with him.
“Breaking is easy.” She said. “It’s putting the pieces back together than becomes the problem.”
The tunnel. Spacious, wide, enough for five to comfortably walk next to each other with space still free. The dormice had worked on it further as Maverick came to see, sitting cross-legged by the entrance. So wide it was now, that it had taken up the entirety of the wall.
But the surreal working speed of the dormice, as small and frail as they looked, was not what unnerved him about this place. The memory still haunted him, the sight, that of himself and Rebecca within. Both, afflicted, sleeping eternally. It felt as if they were there in the shadows, right past the reach of his eyes.
That alone left him aversive to stepping in. Risking the valley turned tempting in comparison, but dragging the others through it was simply not an option.
Then, his mind turned silent at a particular thought.
What if he was alone? If he, and only he, had to traverse the tunnels? Would he dare to step in, or would he take a more dangerous path just to avoid the possibility of coming across that dreadful sight?
Past his own silent mind, however, he began to pick up the faint rumbling afar. The spades and clubs were approaching.
He was not alone, after all. Not yet. Then, Derrota’s distinct steps arrived.
“Ready?” She asked.
Though quiet for a moment, he took a deep breath and stood up, facing the tunnel entrance still. More steps followed, those of a few walking down the stairs to this basement. Turning to see, Maverick found a particular spade and club.
“Yo.” Greeted the spade with a smile, palm raised. “Long time no see, paladin.”
“Susan?” He asked. Despite not having been in wonderland for even a week, it all felt as if having occurred so long ago that he had almost forgotten. True to his suspicions, beside Susan he saw Lexie.
“Good to see you haven’t forgotten about us.” She snickered.
“Two of Spades and Ace of Clubs figured it’d be best if those who had already been in these tunnels are at the front.” Said Lexie.
More steps came through, to see those they mention descend. The Two of Spades, and the Ace of Clubs, both staring with confusion and skepticism at their hardly aesthetic surroundings, as well as the pitch black tunnel in front.
“Is this seriously the best way to the center?” Asked the Two of Spades, walking up to the group. However, once her steps finished, still another set approached past the rumbling of all outside. The reaction of the Two and the Ace gave it away; they did not expect anyone else going down just yet.
From the staircase, she descended, one Maverick could recognize anywhere: The Ace of Spades, slow and patient in her steps, silently walking to the group that had formed. Though she said not a thing, her presence and gaze, along with her halberd at the ready, hinted enough as to her intentions.
In turn, the Two of Spades smiled. “Looks like our Ace is back with us.” She said, turning to the others. “In any case, we might still be in the tunnels when the Hearts realize we’re gone from the valley. We should hurry before they figure out we’re taking this path.”
They could hardly see a thing. As if the universe ceased to exist in front, past a few meters there was nothing but pitch black darkness. Derrota’s white flame at the front illuminated just a fraction of the path, just barely enough to see where they stepped; with the various torches and ethereal flames, the great group shone light only on themselves and the walls. All that there was left, all that could be done, was march ahead with the eerie cacophony of their steps echoing back and forth infinitely to stave off the silence.
Every now and then without warning, however, a dormouse ran along at too fast a speed for anyone to believe. Appearing out of nowhere and disappearing in equal manner, running back and forth by the sides of the columns of spades and clubs muttering alien languages none could decipher, gaining the terrified looks of the trumparts as they passed.
“What did the affliction do to their minds…?” Asked Maverick. Whether it had been an honest question, or a mere attempt to break the monotony of marching, he himself knew not.
“Nyarlathotep can do whatever she wants to anyone.” Answered Derrota.
“So there are more types of affliction out there?”
“No reason why there wouldn’t. She can manipulate a mind like it’s her toy – no, like she’s crafting a toy in the first place. She could even–” The abrupt end to her words led to a silent pause. “…Have you ever felt like things weren’t as real as they seemed?”
Unsure what to answer, he could only look back on his first wounds of the affliction. Still, it all felt like being stuck in a dream, something he knew was not real in a sense.
“What do you mean?”
“The eyes of a man capture the light and processes the stimuli in the mind. The skin can perceive touch; pressure, pain, temperature, the nerves throughout the body send it to the mind in the same way. The tongue does the same with taste, so does the nose with smell, the ears with hearing, and so on. At its core, though, it’s the mind receiving stimuli… So what if there was a powerful enough entity, a demon out there, that could replicate those stimuli without flaw and send it to one’s mind directly?”
Derrota then fell silent, still walking along. Maverick saw her expression, or lack thereof; focused yet aimless, lost in thought, until she let out a soft sigh as she ran her hand over her face.
“Sorry, I’m just rambling now.” She continued. “It just… gets lonely, having nobody to talk with these last few years.”
Though he opened his mouth to speak, his words had been cut short; the tunnel shook like an earthquake, with a deep, furious howl reverberating throughout. Bits of earth broke off from the tunnel’s top, falling like rain upon them making the bulk of spades and clubs scream in terror. Understandably, hardly anyone in the group found the idea of being buried alive appealing.
And then, a voice broke out loud, startling even those at the front. That of the Ace of Spades, shouting:
“Do not fear!”
Both spades and clubs alike abruptly cut their own wails short. The rain of dirt subsided, as did the trembling echo in part, and with the group having halted entirely, a faint silence remained in which all stared up high.
“An emission.” Said the Ace of Clubs. “This might as well be the safest place in Wonderland, now.”
“Has the sorceress seen us, then?” Asked the Two of Spades.
“No way to tell,” said Derrota, “but we might end up with pretty bad storms when we get out.”
“How bad?” Asked the Ace of Clubs.
“You don’t want to know.” Answered Maverick. “It’ll keep getting worse, so the sooner we get there, the better.”
Their march then resumed, the silent example of those at the front prompting those behind to walk once more.
Already the tunnel’s end could be seen, flashing bright with the intermittent lightning. Were it not for that, the mud forming under their feet and the ever clearer howling and cacophony of the winds would’ve been a clear enough sign as well.
Hurried steps led the way, approaching the exit in haste. A gentle slope led to the surface; Maverick and Derrota found no more ceiling of earth, and the heavy downpour began to mercilessly bludgeon their cloaks. With longsword and musket in hand, the paladin and the lilim arrived to the grass outside, scanning about for any signs of hostility. However, they found no life, not even a mere critter.
Two spades followed out at the same time, the Two and the Ace, along with Susan and Lexie with them. So too did the Ace of Clubs come out, along with several high-rank spades and clubs, all with their weapons brandished.
A forest. Not terribly thick if the rain could get through the treetops this badly, but still woods nonetheless. It seems as if the dormice had torn through quite a few trees and roots, to end up in the middle of one.
And still, they saw nothing, nor did a hail of arrows greet them.
“We have to set up a perimeter at once.” Said the Two of Spades. “We won’t have long. Maybe an hour at most if by sheer miracle nobody wanders here.”
“We must assume every living thing here is afflicted.” Said Derrota. “Chances are that even the squirrels are.”
“So shiv anything that moves? That makes it simpler.” She said, to then turn and raise her voice to the others. “Spread out, I want eyes everywhere! Getting ambushed in this Queen-forsaken mud is the last thing we want!”
Her orders given, the trumparts divided in groups and moved out as they came from the tunnel. So too did Maverick and Derrota, moving into the woods.
And still like before, no matter how far they got, how many trees they passed, how much they muddied their boots, there was nothing to be seen. A certain paranoia grew in Maverick, his only memories of such weather involving enemies on all sides without escape.
“So, we are finally here.” He said, gazing about. “What now?”
“Improvise.” Said Derrota.
“What else is there to do, really?” Said a certain other voice.
Derrota snapped her gun’s aim towards the source, as did Maverick readying his blade. With each flash of lightning they saw none other than Melanie standing with her back against a tree, cross-armed with a condescending smirk on her face. Paranoid stares followed from the two, looking in all directions to find several silhouettes in the woods. Traitor dullahans, the lot of them.
“You lot crossed that tunnel faster than I’d have imagined.” She continued. “Bravo.”
“So you knew about it.” Said Maverick.
“You don’t sound surprised. Gotten used to Nyarlathotep’s powers back in Nostrum?”
He returned no response, though no response did Melanie expect either. Rather, she quietly turned her head to Derrota.
“Victoria’s own daughter… Nyarlathotep knows I’m dying to ask a few things.”
“I can imagine.” Answered Derrota, not lowering her gun.
“I’m sure we can work out something out. You and I chat for a little while, and in exchange… I’ll have my girls pretend they never knew about the tunnel, and not bother your little friends while they’re setting up. A very generous deal, wouldn’t you agree?” Then, she turned her head to Maverick. “They saw you departing with her. Since going back on your own would raise suspicion, you can come with us as well.”
Maverick and Derrota exchanged glances, slowly their shoulders dropping and weapons lowering. With one last look at each other, knowing the other not to object, Derrota let out a sigh.
“Fine.” She muttered. Melanie’s smile grew in turn.
“A giant shoe.” Scoffed Maverick, entering the curiously shaped house with Melanie and Derrota. “Really…”
“I’m sure you’ve seen worse.” Said Melanie.
No longer did their voices have to be raised, with the storm outside muffled by the door closing shut. Within, however, Maverick found no traces of life. As if she owned the place, Melanie walked off to a small table and pulled a chair; two others remained, which Derrota and Maverick pulled and sat upon. Now cross-armed over the table, Melanie made no effort in hiding her curious smile.
“So she named you Derrota.” She said. “How long from now?”
“I don’t keep count.” She answered, monotonous in irritation over Melanie’s mere presence. “But Indrick would have taken the crown of Nostrum by then.”
“That boy, Master-Commander of all Nostrum?” She asked, though rather than a taunting tone, hints of pleasant surprise had come to surface. Following a pause, Melanie leaned further forward. “So, how did Nostrum take the news? That their king has sired a lilim.”
“There would be more urgent matters to care about.”
Derrota returned no answer. Her smile never easing, Melanie slowly laid back on her chair before a quiet laugh to herself snuck out. “So it happened.” She said, subtle boasting undeniable. “Because of my Black Hearts, Nostrum and Variland are no longer out to kill each other, and even Victoria will have a child with her beloved. A child I’m seeing here with my own two eyes…”
“And you’ll still be alone, childless and unloved.”
“Yes…” Melanie let out, almost in too much delight. “That anger, that defiance. You have your mother’s eyes, Derrota. That scorn in them for those she perceived as traitors, that stubbornness…” She continued, to then pause momentarily. “But if you are here… then where could your parents be?”
“They sent me off when I was six, when your Black Hearts returned. It’s been six years since I’ve last heard anything of them.”
“I see…” She lamented. “It certainly is tragic than a child is separated from her family. Although, perhaps… you’d be interested in reuniting with them?”
“Eventually I might, but not through the affliction.”
Melanie indulged in mild laughter. “You really are their daughter.”
“That was it, then?” Asked Maverick, subtle indignation surfacing. Melanie fell silent, slowly turning her head to him as did Derrota. “This whole mess started over you just not wanting Nostrum and Variland to not fight anymore?”
“Only Nyarlathotep knows why it started.” Answered Melanie. “But in essence, yes, I continued it over that. Strange how the world works, no? But it does work sometimes.”
With her words over, she sunk on her chair, clasping her hands over her belly.
“Ah, it’s nostalgic.” She continued. “The rain, our situation… It feels like Acerrae, doesn’t it? Although, even though you have the power of a young lilim this time, you don’t have the great armies of Nostrum and Variland behind you. It’s just spades and clubs.” She said, to then quietly turn her eyes to Derrota. “You have nineteen less paladins than in Acerrae as well. You’ll need all the luck in the world to get through.”
Maverick and Derrota, however, had nothing to add. The muffled raindrops hitting the roof filled what their silence had left, staring at one another for those few moments.
“Ah, but there’s no hate in my heart.” Said Melanie. “You answered my questions, so if you want any of yours answered, I’ll see what I can do.”
Though Maverick did nothing, Derrota’s movements betrayed her thoughts. Pursing her lips, eyes glancing low, till a few words left her mouth.
“Tell me about my parents.”
The grin in Melanie’s face widened for a second, before letting her head rest back.
“The things they would do for each other…” She sighed. “I’m certain there isn’t much I can tell you that you wouldn’t already know, but I think the only reason Indrick got through Nyarlathotep’s mental onslaught was because of Victoria. I’m sure it’s the same for her, getting out of that cave purely because of him coming to save her. She was free to leave at any moment, anyway. Great woman, and great man. They don’t deserve all the suffering they put themselves through.”
With a quiet exhalation, she brought herself up once more to cross her arms and rest her elbows on the table, staring aside in thought.
“I envy them, you know?” She continued. “Those who fought in Acerrae. Serving Victoria even if she was missing, getting to experience what it must’ve felt to fight beside Nostrum’s greatest. Jeremiah, Victoria, Vandire, Indrick… all on the same side, under the rain.” She paused, to then quietly shake her head ever so slightly as her aimless gaze continued. “I guess that’s a sacrifice we Black Hearts had to make, to be on the other side to give them all the chance to experience it.”
After a moment of silence, Melanie brought her eyes to Derrota again.
“I figured your parents would finally be together for good the moment they got out of Acerrae.” She continued. “My dullahans followed them around. We could have caught them had we wanted to. One time during the escape to the north, we even saw them sleeping together in the same bed as if they had been lovers, although that was mostly Victoria sleepwalking to his bed in the dead of the night. Knowing how things developed from there, I’ll say it still counts.”
“You could’ve caught them?” Maverick asked, raising his voice in shock and indignation. “We risked our hides as distraction for nothing?”
“You are a goldfish in dark waters, paladin.” She answered, turning to face him. “Never forget that.”
Afterwards, she turned to Derrota again.
“You have much to thank Nyarlathotep as well.” She continued. “That book is proof that she has given your parents her blessings, and expected your arrival to this world. Eyes both near and distant watch your actions with great interest.”
Lowering her head just enough, Derrota glanced over at her book from the corner of her eyes. There it hanged on its chains, hooked onto her waist belt. A reminder that her current situation had perhaps been determined long ago.
“Then are we done here?” She asked, returning her eyes to Melanie.
“We are, unless Maverick here wants to know something as well.”
Turning to face him, Melanie and Maverick locked eyes momentarily; in Maverick’s mind, however, a grim thought festered.
“You and Nyarlathotep know well how all of this will end. Right?” He asked.
In return, Melanie chuckled.
“I will leave you in suspense.” She answered, grin never subsiding.
He’d not get an answer, he had come to conclude. “Then we’re done.” He said, to then stand up and depart towards the door.
“Very well.” Said Melanie, as Derrota joined Maverick. “Send my regards to Indrick and Victoria, assuming you get out in one piece. And, good luck.”
“I don’t believe in luck.”
Raising the hood over his head, he opened the door and stepped outside into the uncaring wind and downpour. After Derrota followed, she closed the door shut, following him into the woods growing muddier by the second. Although, as he came to notice after a while, Derrota had looked at him with strange eyes for a good while. Judging? Questioning? Wondrous? He could not tell.
“What?” He asked, halting in place.
“The way you said that last thing.” She answered. “It caught my attention. I can tell that something’s in your mind.”
He couldn’t deny it. Though he had no desire to speak of it, he couldn’t say nothing was wrong. Left standing as he was in the rain, he could only collect his thoughts, piecing everything together as best as he could.
“You saw what happened with Rebecca.” He said, partly throwing his arms aside for a moment. “Not even going back to the time before she set out helped. Now Melanie says we did fuck-all when we used ourselves as decoy. Even that book of yours means you were meant to be born, so everything was meant to happen this way regardless of what we did. It feels… It feels like everything’s cast in stone already.”
In silence, Derrota left her gaze to lower. Turning aside in the direction the spades and clubs gathered far away, she stared expressionless.
“So it would seem.”
“There’s no luck, is there?” He continued. “No error. No accident. Rebecca was meant to turn into a monster one way or another, wasn’t she? For every cause we got rid of, another even more contrived took its place. It took me seeing myself and her in that tunnel to actually stop trying.”
“Causality no longer seems to work. It’s the other way around now, isn’t it?”
“Cause and consequence. Now the consequence is what dictates the causes. Inverted Causality, as if.”
“Then…” He said, a flurry of thoughts arriving to him. “You being born is the consequence that dictated Nyarlathotep and Melanie left all of a sudden, back then?”
“Possibly.” She said, slowly shifting her gaze towards him with a smile. Not a taunting one as he had been used to, but rather, one giving off a subtle hint of sorrow, of sympathy, as he came to realize. “The consequence must’ve been fulfilled, if Variland and Nostrum have ceased to exist in my time.”
No words. Silent as he had been left, he raised his eyes to the clouds above, heavy raindrops falling on his face. The weather kept getting worse and worse; with memories tracing back to Acerrae, it felt as if this was already as bad as the worst it had gotten back then. It would only get worse from here, as well. Judging by the winds leaving his cloak to flow so violently despite the trees around him, he couldn’t help but imagine that there may be the chance that arrows would be unable to fly straight, giving the spades and clubs a chance against the dullahans, as little help as it may be.
“Then what’s the consequence we’re walking into?”
“Not even you with that book?” He asked, lowering his gaze to her, to see her glancing downwards to the ever-dry book for a second.
Maverick in return took a deep breath. “…If I let it get into my head, whoever is deciding on that will just keep throwing misery at me and the others to keep me going, won’t it?” He asked. “It decided I would get this far one way or another, after all.”
“Maybe. There’s no telling if it favors those who try, either. ‘God only helps those who help themselves’, you of The Order used to say.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“Are we really meant to know such a thing?” She said, to then step off. “We need to get you out of here soon. You’re starting to think like I do.”
Though left blinking blankly, Maverick soon snapped back to reality, rushing to catch up with her.
“Do we even have a plan for our advance to the center?” He asked.
“Other than ‘improvise’? The moment the fight starts, I’ll have a few reinforcements come.”
“The Hollows? I’d have imagined you’d have them accompany us the last time we saw them.”
“The Hearts and Black Hearts would have noticed.”
“I’m fairly sure everyone has noticed we are here already.”
“Ever wondered why you were sent alone?” She asked, striking him silent as she shot a glance at him in their march. “If you came here with more paladins, Nyarlathotep would’ve responded with greater force, as if seeking an equal push for her own entertainment. It’s why she didn’t send the cultists as well to Variland’s capital after Acerrae. The Black Hearts will be ready for the spades and clubs, along with you and me, but not those I plan to bring into the fray.”