Victory and Defeat – Ch.12

They had reached the forest’s edge. No longer were there trees to safeguard them from the violent winds and rain, as little as it did back then. The hurricane, the storm, the deafening howl of the sky, the blinding intermitten lightning with its accompanying ear-ringing thunder so close, it served enough to impair their senses; Maverick and Derrota, as well as all others around them, needed to keep their arms over their eyes to defend against the natural onslaught, but still not too far away they could see their objective. Civilization, or at least its remains, in the shape of a city and a castle looming over the rest of the buildings. Still, that’s all they could see, the faint silhouette of the buildings.

Despite it being the eye of the storm, as the spiralling skies above would imply, still the weather reached its highest severity here. Hardly a surprise, if Nyarlathotep’s influence cared not for sense.

“If we’re lucky enough, we can take this part of the city.” Shouted the Two of Spades, storm overdrowning all but the loudest of voices. “Queen knows how we’re gonna get any further, though.”

“Why?” Asked Maverick in equal manner. “What are we up against?”

“Once we go further in, we’re gonna end up hitting a wall that surrounds the rest of the city. Even if we get through that wall, we’ll still have to deal with the Queen’s castle, and we don’t really have anything to punch a hole in either of those or time to build one. If anyone has any suggestions, believe me, I’m all ears!”

But no more voices could be heard. The Two of Spade’s anxious expression remained, though in due time she noticed Derrota looking about around herself. Then, Derrota’s lips moved, a whisper unheard.

“Said something?” Asked the Two of Spades.

“A tree!” She shouted in return. “Have the biggest tree you find here chopped down, we’ll use it to smash through the gate!”

“Are you crazy?! They’ll shoot us up on approach!”

“The two Aces will throw it!”

“You’re out of your mind! A tree will break before it puts a dent on that gate!”

“Got a better idea? And it better be quick, we’ll get caught by an emission at this rate!”

A tough decision to make, if the Two of Spades’ pursed lips and frown were anything to go by. After a short moment of pondering, she turned her head the Ace of Clubs.

“Your clubs can run around and find a suitable one with our Ace. We’ll carve a path for when you’re done.”

“Of course.”

Taking a deep breath, she turned back to the numerous other trumparts before her. “One way or another, this is the last battle we’ll face in this mess we used to call home! Our queen is watching. Make sure she is not ashamed!”

With a cry in unison breaking through the relentless howling of the wind, the trumparts raised their spears.

“Spades, with me!” She then shouted, to advance out of the forest. The thundering steps of the spades then followed, all of those left in the entirety of Wonderland like a small army.

As for Maverick, it only left questionable memories to surface. It was the same. It was all the same.

This was Acerrae again.

He could almost see it. Vandire. The other paladins. The infantry, and the cavalry.

The dullahans.

The inevitable bloodbath.

A gentle hit on his shoulder snapped him out of his flashback. Turning aside, he found Derrota looking at him with her gun already prepared. Still, rather than words, she nodded aside towards their objective. Maverick in turn took a deep breath, and as Derrota picked up the pace with the rest of the spades, Maverick did so as well.

He had reached the city. No longer did his rushed steps return the squish of grass and mud trampled under his boots, now stepping over solid stone despite the flooding leaving a layer of water to build up. Longsword drawn, yet held the other way around by the base of its blade as he ran on and on, he passed the areas already cleared by the spades so valorously fighting through the day-turned-night.

Valorously fighting.

Spades.

His eyes deceived him. Blinking heavily, he glanced around again as he ran with Derrota a few meters ahead. Those weren’t spades, those were humans. Men. Armored ones. What were they doing here? In fact, where had the spades gone? It wasn’t just men either, but women as well, uniformed in too different a style for them to be considered Wonderland locals.

And they all wielded bows and swords.

Those weren’t trumparts. They were Nostrian men and Varilandian dullahans. The architecture of the city as well; this was Acerrae. He couldn’t believe his eyes, frowning in stupefaction, slowing his rush as he desperately glanced in all directions. Even the opponents, what he had believed would be Heart trumparts and traitor dullahans were all the common afflicted hordes of back then.

“Maverick, you’re falling behind!” He heard Derrota’s voice. Turning to the front ahead, he saw her slowing down just for him; she had not disappeared, but why did everyone else?

“Wait…” He shouted, bringing one hand to hold his head. “Wait, this isn’t right!”

“No time! Keep running, they won’t hold forever!”

“Who won’t hold?! Derrota, are we even in Wonderland anymore?! Did we step into a time space anomaly?!”

“What do you mean?!”

But past a blink, he saw the trumparts again. Ally and foe, fighting against each other in the streets, many turning to puffs of smoke as the afflicted were struck down. And yet, the same kind of scream reigned in cacophony; screams of defiance, of anger, of terror, and of affliction as sisters fought each other. Now, there was nothing left to do but wait as they made their way ahead step by step, bringing the line forward.

“Aaagh… Fuck it!” He ranted, still holding his head though now catching up. “It’s nothing!”

Not too far away, the main spearhead fought on to carve a path; and yet, they were so disorganized, so undisciplined in their formation if they even had any. They were just groups sent forward, rather than proper units. He had to remind himself: These weren’t soldiers, these were girls stuck in a hellhole. They were caught by surprise, with no luxury of preparing for something like this. This simply was never meant to ever happen to them.

But something didn’t add up. As he arrived to the spades still pushing onward, vision of what lay ahead blocked by the trumparts fighitng each other, he suddenly couldn’t make sense out of what itched at the back of his head.

How did they even get this far?

It took two armies to break into Acerrae, spearheaded by twenty paladins encased in armor from head to toe. Professional, trained armies with proper combat experience. And yet, here the spades with little to no training and disciplines pushed this far in such little time and effort, forcing him to catch up rather than to act as spearhead again. This, with the Black Hearts lurking around as well, along with the afflicted Hearts that would put up a far greater fight than normal afflicted humans and monsters.

Then, the line broke; something occurred, though the next thing Maverick saw was a spade blown back, thrown right against him. With a shout from him and from her, both fell to the flooded ground a few steps back. A harsh landing over the stone road, with the layer of water drenching him. Already imagining the worst, he propped himself up by his elbows and look once more at where the line had been, to see all the spades scattered about, and a particular figure hovering where they all once stood, with the gates they sought visible far behind her.

A woman in red and white, in a long red strapless dress running down to her legs with a slit starting by her thighs. Over her shoulders clunk a white cloak covered in red hearts of all shapes and sizes, with a lining by the edges of the same kind and threads connecting by her chest. Her hair, straight and long covering one her eyes, shared the same color as well, as did what eye had been left to view. And yet, it was all dry without a hint of dampness to ruin her image, for an invisible bubble surrounded her, keeping the raindrops from falling over her figure.

Graceful and elegant, she held a lance in hand. Yet, that was not the weapon she carried, as all around her in the air circled dozens of such lances, hovering and moving, all pointed outwards. Contrasting with the scenery of chaos and devastation around her, she sported a smile almost from ear to ear, eerie and unnerving as if the power of Nyarlathotep herself had cursed it with uncanny properties.

And the one detail that struck Maverick the most was the eye left uncovered. Underneath it, the dark coloration of the affliction could be seen. The other spades must’ve seen it as well, as all withdrew a considerable distance. Even Derrota begun stepping back, staring without a word.

Had to be. It had to be.

The Ace of Hearts.

And worst of all, he found her staring right back at him. A chill ran down his spine, cold and unrelenting, itching at his fight-or-flight instinct enough for him to immediately jump to his feet and unsheath his sword.

“A human, among cards…” She whispered. A whisper he could hear in full clarity despite the storm, as if it had been said right next to his ears. “You must be special, little one. Play with us~”

Memories. Fears. Though he had not been a paladin back then, the fear of facing a lilim in that war with Variland had been ever present. Now, it seemed worse. Far, far worse, somehow. No wonder, the Ace before him most likely had the skill and experience the lilim had lacked. Or, perhaps, it seemed worse because it was not a fear. It was a reality. No wonder they had been allowed in, if this is what stood between them and the gates behind her.

He could see many others sharing his thoughts. None dared advance, though curiously enough none retreated too far. Was it because he stood so close to the Ace, compared to the others? Did he become the spearhead they rallied upon? Who knew. All he knew was that not even Derrota dared take a shot. Their rapid advance had faced an abrupt end. Still, the spades around him gradually came to take their own steps, spreading out throughout the streetwidth with their spears held tight. His eyes then fell on Derrota again, who exchanged a glance with him: cold, determined, dead giveaway of calm and clear thoughts. There was a plan. Knowing they could not let themselves be stopped here, he knew all too well what the plan was.

And perhaps the Ace knew as well, as she simply remained where she was slowly glancing about with that ever-present smile.

“…Now!” Shouted Derrota.

Swallowing his fear, he sprung to life and charged, as did all others with him. A gunshot signalled the desperate attempt, though as he ran forward with sword in hand, he witnessed the Ace intercept the shot with one of her lances. It did not matter, the plan needed to be followed to the end; the spades ran at her from whatever direction they could, almost surrounding her. All attacked at the same time. Still, with a series of swift movements and lances moved about, the Ace of Hearts blew them all away.

Struck aside, impaled, thrown away, none managed to get close enough. Maverick himself, seeing as many had aimed high, went low and rose with an upward slash. And yet, the Ace did not bat an eye as she caught the blade with her hand and strangling his neck with the other. Stupefied, in disbelief, the difference in strength could not be denied. Trumparts lay scattered now, writhing on the ground by what atrocious blows they must’ve received, though an unlucky few had been impaled with the Ace’s lanced against either the solid ground or the buildings.

At that moment he saw Derrota jump on the Ace from behind, great knife in hand. A glimmer of hope…

…So brutally crushed, as the Ace pulled and stole the sword off his grip and smashed the lilim’s torso with its pommel. Like the others, she flew aside. Prodigious genetics of a lilim served for nothing in the face of such assault. The Ace then turned to face him once more, stealing his undivided and horrified attention, just to throw him aside by a building. Again he fell on the flooded ground, though when he looked up at the Ace, he saw her with one of her various lances already pointed at him. What fate he had witnessed those unlucky spades suffer, he knew she planned for him as well.

Affliction.

“Little boy, little boy…” She whispered, joyous and curious. “How long will you last…?”

The assault was lost. They couldn’t push against an Ace. He had to run. Perhaps if he timed it right, he’d dodge the lance and escape. But was escape a possibility? Would she not just shoot him in the back? What about Derrota? Nostrum and Variland threw themselves into the pyre to prevent the apocalypse an afflicted lilim could bring, is he really going to consider leaving her to the Ace? Had to think. Had to be quick. Anything.

And then a tree flew in, taking the Ace of Hearts with it, before the deafening and thunderous noise of the gates shattering rang throughout the night. A flight so fast, so violent, that he could feel the shockwave coursing through him, petrifying him entirely and startling the soul out of him. Next thing he knew, there was nothing in front of him other than branches and leaves. It was gone.

He could not believe his eyes. His body faced the same disbelief, heart beating as fast as it had ever beaten, breathing at an alarming rate to only then turn his eyes aside and see that it had not been some manner of hallucination. The gate had been broken through. As if spent, drained, his body could hardly move; sitting against the building, he could hardly do much other than stare.

“You alright, lad?” He heard someone fast approaching ask, before she gently hit his shoulder. When he turned to face her, he saw a strangely familiar face, along with a motif he simply could not imagine himself seeing in this situation.

Diamonds.

And that cheeky smile, he knew who it belonged to. The first diamond he had seen, back in that forest to the north of Wonderland. The one they had frightened with Derrota’s reveal as dullahan.

“Wh… What…” He attempted to ask inbetween catching his breath. “What’s going on? What happened?”

“We saved your asses from getting surrounded, and this is how you greet us?” She chuckled. “Come on, get up.”

Aided by the diamond, Maverick came to his senses and forced himself to stand once more. And yet, as he glanced back the way they came from, more and more diamonds arrived, many scattering to aid the fallen spades.

“I thought… you left us for dead.”

“Our Ace had a change of mind and figured she’s join the fun. Saw miss Spades and Club trying to throw a tree, so she told us to help you lot while she gave them a hand.” She said, to then turn her eyes to the gate. “Mighty fine work there, huh?”

But the diamond’s smile came to an abrupt end.

“…Hell are those guys?”

When Maverick looked at the gate, his partly lifted spirit sank once more. A myriad troops rushed out like ants out a disturbed ant hill, and none of them were trumparts. None ran directly towards the street, but rather scattered in all directions, no doubt seeking to surround and encircle in a counter-attack.

Arrows, poisoned with the affliction. That minuscule choke point. To step in with that many enemies around would be suicide, even for an Ace.

“They’re Black Hearts.” Answered Derrota as she approached. However, Maverick came to find her slouched over with an uneven gait, using her gun as a walking stick while holding what injury the pommel had given her on her torso. There upon arrival she halted, letting out a grunt in pain as she hunched over.

“Lord Almighty, you alright?” He asked, rushing to his side just to be stopped by her extending her open palm.

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” She answered, standing straight despite visible difficulties. Then, she handed Maverick her gun. “Hold this for a second. Rest of you, I’ll need your help here.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for our Aces?” Spoke the diamond.

“They’ll catch up.” She answered, to then take her book and flick through the pages. “I’ll call a few buddies. Everyone here better be ready to push through that gate.”

“Oh, we’re going even further? Fine by me!” She answered.

Though certainly the diamonds around her shared the sentiment in varying degrees, some of those spades struck down who just barely got up and walked over looked on with hardly positive looks. Those clubs which had begun to arrive and heard the joyous reply could only assume they had heard wrong.

At the same time, Maverick glanced around. There he found it lying on the street, his longsword, which he walked over and reclaimed.

“Clear the street!” Shouted Derrota.

As she asked, Maverick and the trumparts took a few steps back, leaving Derrota with quite the space around her on her own. She readied herself, still reading the book as she positioned her right by the middle of the street facing the gate. Maverick glanced over to see a fair few Black Hearts still rushing out, too far away for them to even consider shooting their arrows in this hurricane, though still none advanced directly towards them. Pity for the spades, clubs, and diamonds who would be surprised to face such opponents around them, but little could Maverick do about it. None of them had come expecting a fair fight.

That alien language. She spoke it again. It drilled into his ears. A great space anomaly, surely, though it had come as a surprise that they could work both ways. Then, he realized, it shouldn’t surprise him. Nothing should. That book was Nyarlathotep’s after all. Lord knew what she could do with it.

A lightning bolt fell close. Too close. Not even twenty meters away, startling him enough to cover his head with his arm, his ears left ringing and retina obscured by the sudden light. Sparks flew aside on impact. And still, Derrota paid it no mind. However, Derrota’s flowing cloak alerted him of a subtle change. The winds seemed to alter in direction somewhat, the change itself intensifying as seconds passed. The clothing of the other spades pointed to the same idea. All flowed differently, but still in a certain pattern. There and then another bolt fell in similar proximity.

He came to conclude that they were to be in the eye of a miniature developing storm, of which Derrota herself was the eye.

It got worse. Fast. Though he could stand comfortably a minute ago, the threat of getting swept off his feet forced him to lower himself partly. The trumparts fared no better, and even Derrota had done the same, frowning in effort and focus.

“Storm clouds, blades all unsheathed;”

It took him a second to realize her incantations had changed to a familiar tongue. It took him another second to remember the familiar words.

“death called us all, yet we all knew no fear…”

More lightning, this time almost close enough to hit him. And then more, and more. The winds changed direction, whirlwinds developing and changing in aberrant fashion, true to the uncaring powers surrounding them all. Worry and anxiety festered within him, finding it too inconsistent compared even to the worst Acerrae had to offer, and all of that coming from an ally than an enemy to add insult to injury.

“Blood, toil, sweat, and tears;”

There was no limit. No rock bottom. He found himself almost kneeling on the ground already, and from the corner of his eyes he saw a trumpart collapsing, falling to the ground and dragged by the winds a few steps away as she shouted. This was no hurricane, this was a tornado in its infant stages. The stench of ashes and burnt material flooded the air despite what would’ve blown it away, the lightning storm pounding against all that existed around them. So bad had it gotten, that his rosarius had managed to escape out of his clothes, dangling by the chain around his neck.

And it glinted a vibrant white, bright and blinding like the sun which they had not seen for so long. It pained his eyes, a light so intense that it could be used as tool to illuminate.

“death called us all, still fighting we live!”

Bolts fell down, seven at the same time striking in sync a few steps ahead. Maverick lost all sense of hearing, stunned, almost throwing himself to the ground as he covered his head with his arm. And yet, when he looked up again, he saw at the points of impact strange entities standing. Humanoid, yet of properties reminiscent of the Freiksgaardians he had seen. In fact, for a second he had truly believed they were. Clad in armor from head to toe, excessive for any human being thousandfold making them look like golems made out of pure metal, with a great halberd in their hands each. Crude, unsophisticated, ugly as if, thrown together in any way they could. Seven titans, right before his eyes.

The storm brought by the ritual abruptly halted, even though the storm itself from before still raged on. More bolts fell, scattered throughout the street in quick succession, dozens upon dozens. Upon impact, a figure remained standing, those he had seen before. Crossbowmen and bowmen of particular aesthetic; Nostrians and Varilandians. Humans, and Dullahans.

And with a glance ahead, he came to see the Black Hearts look with as much disbelief, halting their movements to stare on at what transpired.

“Hollows!” Shouted Derrota. “Into the breach!”

The one at the front then raised his foot, taking a step forward. Maverick could not believe that they were capable of accomplishing such feat, though it turned apparent that the atrocious weight already pushed them to their very limit. There was no agility. No grace. No finnesse. Just a crude step forward with all the weight following, the step itself causing that distinct deep noise heard past the weather. The others soon followed suit, the inertia of their armor fighting back against their wishes to move, though little by little they built up speed to a lumbering slow jog.

From where he was, he could tell the Black Hearts snapped out of their shock. They suddenly came back to life, no longer scattering but rather readying their bows as their numbers built up over the street by the gate.

In close enough proximity, the dullahans let loose, hardly half a hundred meters with the hurricane’s threat to send their arrows astray.

But it did nothing. Dullahan strength be damned, their arrows bounced off, and those that struck had become embedded harmlessly without effect on the juggernauts fast approaching. Flinching at best, but nothing would stop half a ton of cold, merciless retribution clad in demonic metal.

The gun had been stolen off his hands. Derrota had taken it, though by that act also snapped him back to reality from his trance.

“All or nothing!” She shouted, raising his gun high to all of those around her. “There’s no turning back!”

In return, though a second of silence ensued inbetween, all raised their spears in unison with a loud defiant cry. Spades, Diamonds, Clubs. The hopeful and the despairing, the joyous and the furious, it mattered not who it was. The rest of the hollows, had begun advancing as well. Knowing the afflicted attempt to encircle them, there really was no turning back. Not for any of them. There was no escape plan, unlike in Acerrae.

No time to waste. He took a deep breath and swallowed his anxiety, to then break out running with the hollows. By the sudden earthquake occurring a distance behind him, he could tell without looking that all followed suit.

Up ahead, the titans- as good a name as he could think of those armored beasts- had crashed into the Black Heart lines. The inertia turned apparent, seeing them effortlessly push aside all they came across without losing speed at all, turning to smoke those they caught with their halberds. But their purpose was not to stay and fight, it was to pierce through. They kept on pushing, but still those Black Hearts they had not turned to smoke remained around them, threatening to engulf them, to swarm and overrun them. With the weight of their armor, it was inevitable that their weapons would not be in optimal use. In quick notice the traitor dullahans maneuvered around them, some even jumping and climbing on their titanic bodies.

But bolts and arrows flew in. Maverick saw the hollows pick off those who remained. There was no care for friendly fire; the projectiles simply had no power to pierce the armor. Still, more remained as numbers built up around the gate. They were countless.

With the others, he arrived to the titans, and with firm grip slashed and thrust at those who were clinging onto their armor. They had been left without proper footing, disoriented, in disarray and without formation, thrown aside by the seven battering rams. Pests, now. A miserable display of what used to be Victoria’s finest, now vermin in his eyes.

That was the plan. The tactic. A symbiosis, combined arms. The titans tore through their ranks with ease, and the rest protected them from the numbers. He couldn’t help but imagine, is this how it felt back them? For those who advanced behind the paladins under their protection? It must be. How small he felt, with the steel hollows pushing on ahead of him.

Slash. Thrust. Stab, cleave, hew, maim. The push had turned so efficient and the surprise so effective, that the traitors had been pushed back to each other, trampling on themselves before being trampled by their opponents. In short notice, they arrived at the gate and even passed it, crossing to the other side of the wall. With the chokepoint crossed, and with so many of the traitor dullahans having rushed past them in an attempt to encircle the rear, they soon punched past the greatest concentration of forces, coming across a far emptier segment of the city. Desolate, almost.

Nyarlathotep wasn’t known for keeping a reserve force, it seemed.

“Secure the side streets!” Shouted Derrota. “Our goal is the castle! Don’t stop till we hit the walls, it won’t be long before they catch up to us!”

Though the titans kept on advancing at their lumbering pace, the hollows split to the sides in two groups, rushing away through the streets. They’d protect their flanks, even if unseen. Against Black Hearts, they were best suited, thought Maverick; he and the trumparts would do in aiding the titans.

Branches. Bark. Trunk fragments, leaves upon leaves. Some, flattened altogether under the weight of the Hollows. Even fragments of the gate lay littered about. The tree had disintegrated entirely, torn into a million pieces. Hardly anything remained, what the winds and waters had not swept away.

But that familiar sensation haunted him. Paranoid thoughts, of dangers lurking in the shadows. Did they really take the afflicted by surprise, or were they played with once more by the ruinous powers? A fair few hostiles kept rushing at them at a steady pace, those who had been defeated just to return with a thirst for revenge, though still it seemed an advance almost too easy. ‘Easy’ was not the word he sought, but rather, hopeful. They could see victory ahead.

They were not meant to see any, whenever Nyarlathotep was involved.

He spotted something struck the titan at the very front. His eyes widened in horror, to see a lance impaling the hollow through the armor clean, as if it did not exist. He had been pierced, thrown to the ground, and impaled against it as the lance dug into the stone, and holding the lance he saw the Ace of Hearts over him marking her return. All stepped back, even those afflicted which had pressed the assault, leaving a great empty circle around the Ace and her tragic victim.

But now, no longer did she see her grace. Her cloak had been torn in almost its entirety, her dress faced the same damage at the ends, her once perfectly straight hair now remained messy. Many of the lances following her like wings suffered damage, some dented, others outright torn in half. Her bubble had disappeared as well; nothing protected her against the rain, most likely of her own choosing or neglect, leaving her drenched in the storm engulfing Wonderland.

“You…” She whispered, drilling into Maverick’s ears as she raised her head to face him.

That smile. No longer creepy, but horrifying; ear to ear, both rows of teeth showing, as if demonic and wild in nature. Her eye that remained visible shared the visible insanity as well, wide open with the white of her eyes visible above and below that blood red color of her iris.

“You bring uninvited guests…”

The fear of before returned. Though the tree had saved him and the others, he was certain there wouldn’t be another. But, she was an Ace; where were the Aces on his side? Quickly glancing back, and even around, he saw none. Ace of Spades, nowhere. Ace of Clubs, neither. Ace of Diamonds, as hopeful as he was that she too was on their side with the arrival of the Diamonds, simply wasn’t anywhere.

And to think that they were so close to the castle.

Agony. Hopelessness. Anger, grudge. The summoning of the hollows was for naught, if they were stopped that easily. Nyarlathotep must’ve known. How wouldn’t she? And here he was, a simple human thrown an afflicted Ace to fight against, when not even a titan could come close to being a match.

It was all so exhausting. To run. To be desperate. To be afraid. To try his damned hardest just to delay things at best. For all of it to be for nothing.

“…Ace!” He shouted to the top of his lungs, sheathing his sword. Though the Ace of Hearts gave no words in response, her grin subsided to a simple smile, standing up though still leaving the lance embedded into her poor victim. “Face me!”

“Maverick, don’t be an idiot!” Whispered Derrota out loud, just enough for him to hear. If he could judge it well, many others must be looking at him with equal thoughts. Those on the afflicted side as well, if the vicinity still remained at a standstill.

“I am getting tired of this shit!” He continued, a cry both furious and desperate. There and then, he extended his arms aside. “I’m here! Come and get me!!”

What lances remained around the Ace slowly descended to the ground. Then, she took a calm step towards him; that act served enough for all of those around him to step back. He, on the other hand, remained in place; whether through courage or petrifying horror, he cared not to tell the difference. It was over before it’d even begin. At least he increased his chances a miserable insignificant bit, getting her to drop her lances. Those chances still sat comfortably next to ‘zero’.

She then hastened her pace. This was it. At least he’d be a distraction for Derrota and the others to run past and reach the castle. Well, ideally. Half a second of distraction wasn’t that much, in the grand scheme of things. But he wasn’t about to back off; instead, he raised his steel-plated fists.

From a walk, to a jog, to a run, the Ace of Hearts soon let out a shout; one Maverick returned in kind a warcry as he took speed and ran towards her. Close enough, they brought their fists back and threw them forward with all their strength.

And then, an unknown entity overtook from behind him in his rush, throwing her fist in equal manner and connecting with the Ace’s cheek. The sound of flesh and bone struck echoed all throughout the cacophonious night, as the Ace flew back and crashed into the afflicted ranks with enough force to turn a great many of them to smoke.

Stupefaction. Disbelief. Confusion. Who had it been, that now stood with her back to him and her fist extended after such act?

A cape. Colorful, vibrant, as if the darkness and chaos could not obscure it. So many colors of great intensity, saturated, all arranged in a particular fashion throughout the ornate cloth: Diamonds. As the entity straightened up again, she turned to look at him from the corner of her crystalline violet eyes, revealing yet more of her figure. Her hair shared the number of errant colors, running down to her shoulders and arranged in braids reminiscent of a jester’s hat, braids somehow holding the same diamond shape he had seen from the trumparts. Her armor, if he could call it that, although not strange, seemed unfitting: Ornate to the point of hardly looking practical, trading utility for aesthetics and fashion, holding a mixture of plates, mail, and clothes of all colors and shapes.

And on her expression remained a smile. Confident, almost arrogant, though somehow calming in these insane times unlike that which he saw the Ace of Hearts have. Her skin seemed pale, though with a clearer look he found it to be some manner of makeup; no wonder, if her lips shared just as vibrant a color achievable only through lipstick, along with shade around her eyes. Under her eye as well lay that symbol, that diamond, painted on in red.

From the sudden chatter and cheering of those surrounding him, he could tell well who had come. The Ace of Diamonds.

“You’re pretty brave for a human, boyo.” She greeted, voice as cheeky and taunting as he’d have imagined.

Her eyes soon fell again to the front, watching the Ace of Hearts smash her fist against the ground and stand back up. Her eerie smile of devious delight had now been replaced with pure scorn and anger.

“Chasing after little boys, sis’?” Taunted the Ace of Diamonds, unsheathing her longsword and giving it a good spin. “For shame. I expected better of you.”

“You… You and the other Aces… Pointing your blades at those who serve the Queen?!”

“Oh, please. You always ran crying to her at the slightest thing.”

As their exchange continued, Maverick came to spot a titan marching up to the fallen one, and soon enough two trumparts of their own accord, a diamond and a spade. With the afflicted lance impaled in him, only Lord knew what that hollow must be going through. Not wishing it on anyone, he quickly rushed over, to then aid the others in their attempt to pull the lance out.

“Traitor!”

“Wimp!”

It would not budge. Great part of it remained underground. Another titan approached, and so did another trumpart, all holding whatever they could of the lance. The injured one, though hardly active as far as Hollows go, still clenched his fist; inner turmoil, struggle, and struggle it would remained. There was no concept of giving up to these guys.

And then, a familiar face showed up.

“Ace!” Exclaimed a club.

Sure she was, the Ace of Clubs. Given space, no words needed to be exchanged, as she took grasp and pulled with them. Strenuous effort and grunts followed, until as if by miracle, the lance began to budge.

“Pull! All together!” Said another trumpart.

A cry could be heard. Maverick turned his head, to find the Ace of Hearts having recovered a lance and charging against the Ace of Diamonds, just for her weapon to be deflected. Maddening speed and finnesse to his eyes, in short notice the diamond had slammed her to the ground. Superior skill? Overconfidence by the Heart? He could not tell. But, the Ace of Hearts rolled away, escaping a blow. Unless the Ace of Diamonds struck a finishing blow, it’d all be for naught.

Couldn’t discount the morale boost, however. The trumparts had begun chanting at the fight. ‘Ace! Ace! Ace!’, all in unison. First, just the diamonds, but soon enough all broke out in defiant cheering. Part of him wished to chant as well, he could not deny it. To be so hopelessly outmatched by an Ace mopping the floor with them, and one arrives to aid them in their hour of need…

Another pull. And another. And another. The lance gave in, and rose partly. Slow but steady, they took the lance out till the Hollow was set free. Though no longer he clenched his fist, the other extended an open palm which he took, lifted up to his feet with the aid of all those present. An uneven gait followed as inner turmoil persisted, but the injury had passed, he would recover.

Another glance to the fight, and he found the Ace of Diamonds… dancing. An awful taunt, grinning mischievously to find it pretty effective by the Ace of Heart’s absolute rage. Another warcry, and another charge, but before she could reach the Ace of Diamonds, from a building an entity burst out. Debris covered her as she struck the Ace of Hearts, though once it cleared, Maverick saw well the armor of the Ace of Spades. As quickly as she marked her arrival, she departed, crashing into the building on the other side of the street with the Ace of Hearts still in her hold.

“Go! We’ll keep her busy!” Said the Ace of Diamonds as she turned to Maverick and the others, giving a thumbs up and a great smile. Not a second later, she broke running into the hole the Ace of Spades had created in the building.

At the same time, the two titans headed off forward, joined by the remaining five. The duel had made him forgot: The battle which had raged around them only took a pause.

“Forward! We’re so close to the castle now!” He shouted, unsheathing his sword once more.

All cheered, charging forward with the armored hollows to resume the old tactic. However, before he could join them, he felt a full on his arm.

“You fucking idiot!” Ranted Derrota, arriving to him. “Do you have any idea how much you risked us losing?!”

In reality, he’d answer with a ‘no’. He had no excuses to give, nor did he care for one anymore. Though irritation plagued her mind and expression, Maverick soon saw her growing calmer.

“If you can’t return home to warn them of Freiksgaard, everything we have put ourselves through will be in vain.” She said, to then turn and run ahead.

He followed her with his eyes, but as he gained sight of the front, he frowned at the unexpected view. The titans were, in fact, falling behind. So few afflicted had remained after the summoning and breakthrough that it had turned into a cleanup now; the hollows once securing the side streets had returned far far ahead, flanking and wiping out all resistance. The strategy had worked, after all! Choosing not waste an additional second, he broke running and caught up, having already lost sign of Derrota.

Two blocks. Three blocks. Four blocks. Hardly an enemy remained that was not turned to smoke in the blink of an eye. In short notice, he had arrived:

The great doors of the castle.

However, they remained closed. Judging by the few trumparts and Derrota standing looking at it, even the Two of Spades, they’d stay closed for a good while. All others, be it Trumpart or Hollow, scattered about to form a perimeter, an area under their control which they’d defend to the last.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

“Barricaded from the inside.” Answered the Two of Spades. “Can’t break in. Another tree would break it, but we are already surrounded to go back to the forest for one.”

A pause. Silence.

“Then, what do we do?” He asked.

“You tell me.”

“Derrota?”

“Same answer.” She said, to then hang her gun behind her and start flicking through the pages of her book.

“There has to be another way in.”

“Unless you’re comfortable climbing walls, there isn’t.” Said the Two of Spades, in too calm a fashion for comfort.

“Not even a back door or something? A secret escape tunnel?”

“It’s the center of Wonderland with the Queen of Hearts in it. There’s really nothing she’d need to escape from. Nothing of the sort was in the castle’s design, only the front doors.”

There was nothing left to do, or so did he imagine. He took a few steps to the great doors, staring up high enough for his neck to suffer from the muscular stress. There they were. Taunting him just by their existence.

He got to the center of Wonderland. He was here. What they were meant to do, they accomplished.

Almost.

So close, yet at the same time, so far away.

Soon, he brought his head forward, letting his helmet hit against the wood of its frame and resting aimless and thoughtless.

“Heads up, I’m sending you in.” Said Derrota as she approached. Her words had come as enough of a surprise for him to turn his head to her, then face her in full.

“What?” He asked, finding her still flicking through the pages till she reached a certain one.

But a deep, sudden vibration interrupted them, startling all in unison. Thunder both close and afar at the same time, as if from the ether, from another dimension they had no ability to see.

Emission.

“Space anomaly!” She answered in haste. “We’ll delay them as much as we can so that they don’t break into the castle!”

“What?! You’ll get caught in the emission out here!”

“I’m expendable, you are not!” She shouted, to then extend her hand to him and touch him. “In you go!”

“Wait, no!”

But all the scenery faded away.

“Don’t!” He shouted as he tried to reach forward, but he now was elsewhere.

Indoors. An elegant hallway, flanked by a series of windows covered in raindrops. He took a few calm steps and approached the window, seeing the city from the height he found himself in. As he gazed down, he saw all the others fighting without rest.

Spades. Diamonds. Clubs.

Hollows.

Derrota.

And none seemed to seek cover. Whether unwilling or unable, it was hard to tell. But it was only through the vantage he arrived to that he saw in clarity the situation. Hearts and Black Hearts flooded the streets, returning each time one was turned to smoke, now surrounding those who have not yet fallen to the affliction. Their numbers eclipsed what he had in mind.

There really was no escape. They’d fall, given enough time.

Even the lilim. From up here, it didn’t seem like she had any plans to follow him. A gunshot rang out, and then she started reloading as more and more of the afflicted hordes approached. She planned on staying there for good.

But why? He couldn’t make any sense out of it. Nostrum and Variland threw themselves into the pyre to prevent a lilim from falling to the affliction, and there she was making such fears almost a certainty.

Or maybe it wasn’t unwillingness to follow. Inability? It took time for her to create anomalies for two; Rebecca had fallen because of that. Then, why would she not follow him in the same manner, with a personal anomaly much like what she had sent to him?

‘And the universe is under no obligation to make sense to our minds’, he remembered her say. There’s no reason why she wouldn’t follow if she could, if the two of them got this far together. Something must be stopping her.

But he wasted enough time. The emission would hit at any second. And yet, before he could take a single step in mad rush, a loud cacophony rang out through the hallways. Destruction, falling debris, petrifying him as he carefully heard. Whatever happened, happened in the castle. Once it subsided, the hallways remained dead silent. Eerie, the abrupt change from the chaos outside to the desolate interiors. Hearts? Black Hearts? The Ace of Hearts? He could take them on, ignoring the zero chances of victory. Part of him at least viewed the chaos as expected, knowing where he stood, and what lied ahead of him.

There were no such luxuries here, where an afflicted Queen of Hearts could stand right past the corner, or any of her creations.

Pursing his lips and holding his longsword tight, he hurriedly walked along the hallway, but Lord knew the prospect of making enough noise for whatever lurked within to catch him shook him to the bone.

Past the corner, he found nothing. Past another, still nothing. On and on, after twist and turn, only desolation greeted him. Was he even going the right way? For all he knew he could be walking away from where he was meant to go.

But then, he came across a hallway. Flooded, ruined, its wall gone almost in its entirety allowing the violent winds and downpour to enter, along with the dreadful noises of the storm. It looked as if a trebuchet boulder had struck it, but they had never brought such siege engine with them. Some of the debris led further within past the hallway as well, down the path he’d need to take.

He stepped around the hundred fragments of wall, shattered glass and dust grinding beneath his steps, passing the segment with the rain striking against him momentarily. It was then that he spotted among the destruction what might’ve been the cause:

Great claw marks, digging deep into the wall and floor.

No other way than to follow it, for the time being. Best hope whatever it was was far, far away.

Corridors. Rooms. Doors, bends, lengthy walks down empty spaces and quick descent down ornate staircases. Still nothing he could see, no life within, nothing. Time was running out, and he had no idea where to even go. Throne room? Highest point? Some dungeon, if this place even had any?

Thud. It brought him to a halt, to hear a noise again in these halls. Then, more violence, destruction, coming from behind. Though he could hear well something approach, he did not see what, until a door was torn asunder and splinters flew forward into the hallway he walked on. And then, a claw came out, grasping the doorway as whatever it belonged to forced its way in. The doorway was soon torn apart under its strength, quick and merciless as it was, for an ear-drilling ethereal howl to flood the castle.

It was the Jabberwock, once more in her atrocious primal, feral form like dragons of ancient times.

“Shit…!” He cursed to himself, panic settling in. Not wasting an additional second, he turned and ran away as fast as he could without looking back, hearing more and more chaos till the noises began approaching once more.

To stay in the hallway would be suicide; it’d catch up in no time. He bashed the first door he came across open and ran in, unknowing what rooms awaited or even if any would greet him with a dead end. Just as he crossed the doorway, he heard the monstrosity crash against it. The room had a door on the other end; without hesitation he ran and bashed it open, crossing in as destruction followed; at least the necessity for his hunter to break through the architecture seemed to slow it down.

More doors. More rooms. More wanton havoc, without clue where he was going, but as he bashed across the next door, a balcony greeted him. He struck the balustrade, just barely able to stop in time lest he fell a floor down to the grass. A courtyard where the rainfall could be seen, open to the air in the middle of an emission. An awful spot to be in. But he turned to see the jabberwock breaking through the doorway and lunging at him, leaving him no escape. Desperate, he brought his sword forward holding it on both ends, causing the beast to bite it with its teeth as big as his forearms almost gnawing his head off, but it did not stop its charge. Crashing into him, both paladin and beast fell down against the grass of the courtyard.

A painful fall. He landed on his back with deep pain and numbness coursing through him, beast pinning him down with no escape. It would not let go of his sword; in fact, it snapped it to pieces, throwing them aside and leaving him only with a handle with an excuse for a blade fragment on it in his hand. Then, it roared at him, mouth open wide in all its grotesque detail: The stench, the sight of teeth and saliva, the power of the wind out of its lungs, even worsened by the skies tearing themselves apart at the center of the storm, it only made him shout in absolute, pure terror as he covered his head with his arm.

And then, the emission struck.

Consciousness, slowly returning. His ears ached; not out of deafening noises, but of deafening silence. Such it was, that he could clearly hear the natural ringing of his own ears. His own breath. His own heartbeat.

He was lying on the ground. A headache threatened to settle in, forcing a grunt out of him as he squinted his closed eyes. He brought one hand to his head and propped himself up by his elbow, opening his eyes just to see nothing past his visor. He turned his head about, only to be met with the same sight; a cold, dark void. The squishing of his elbow gave way to the realization: a layer of snow covered the ground as snowfall piled, but as he looked downward, he saw the spot around him illuminated.

Curious and confused, he stood up and looked at the ground, then himself. Illuminated. Visible. And yet, he could discern no source of light anywhere. His hands, his body, the immediate vicinity up to five meters at most, he could see it all well enough, but past that nothing else remained.

“I had hoped we’d have more time before the jabberwock returned.” Said Derrota’s voice. Calm, collected, deep, almost eerily so for who she was.

Immediately he gazed in the direction of the source, but he could see nothing at all. Not even a faint silhouette.

“Derrota?” He asked. “Is that you?”

But he heard no more words from her. He stepped towards the darkness, just to find that the light followed him. His walked turn to a run, but no matter how far he went, he could not find Derrota. After a distance, he halted, figuring her voice could not have been this far away.

Sighing in frustration, he let his shoulders drop. He could not tell where he was. He could not tell what lay past the darkness. He could not tell if there even was a way out, or a way to go.

“It looks like you were caught in the emission as well. I suppose we’ve failed.” He heard her say. Behind him, in fact. Turning around, he saw her at the very edge of the light. “But, don’t blame yourself if Wonderland is lost. We are all failures here.”

Then, she turned and walked away, disappearing into the pitch black void. Her words still circled his mind. Yes, he had been caught by the emission. Everyone else was outside, delaying the afflicted. For better or worse, he had ended up as the only one with a chance to reach whatever was within the castle.

And he fucked it up.

No, he needed to cast those thoughts away. For now, what really was around him? What was the purpose of this place? Looking around, he saw nothing but the void, the snow, and his own footprints. And Derrota’s a bit afar. Be it a good or bad idea to do so, his only choice was to follow, and so he set off.

Past his own footsteps, he could not hear anything anymore. The thought that she had created enough distance never crossed his mind: there was simply no way one would run far enough to no longer be heard in such short time span. Other than her footprints, she had disappeared into the void. Even then, the longer he walked, the more he noticed the terrain was too even for comfort. Perfectly flat, no imperfections other than the irregularity of where the snowflakes fell.

Soon enough, he saw a silhouette. Derrota, he imagined, but as he came closer, he noticed the difference in outline. In due time, its details came to light.

A Heart trumpart, spear in hand, looking at him with those dark circles under her eyes and a smile on her face. In reflex he reached for his longsword, but there was nothing by his waist; he was unarmed. Still, during that time, the Heart did nothing at all other than watch immobile.

Curious yet cautious, Maverick slowly approached her. There was no doubt that it knew he was there, but still, no reaction; the only thing it did was follow him with her eyes. In all other instances, the afflicted would attack or taunt him, or do something at all. Something was off. Past a few seconds, the heart turned and departed non-chalant.

“Strange.” Said Derrota’s voice. “They’re only that friendly to other afflicted.”

‘Other afflicted’. The words rang in his mind on and on, forcing a flurry of thoughts to bombard him. Was he afflicted? He had been caught by the emission, after all. Not to mention, he had been brought to this place as well.

“What do you mean?” He asked. “…Derrota?”

But he heard no more of her.

He continued on, following her trail. He then caught glimpse of another entity, though as it entered view through the light he found it lying on the ground. Unnatural. A corpse, as if, puzzling him enough till he came to notice the outfit. Light armor, a helmet, and a certain surcoat. A man lying face up. A Nostrian footman, which he quickly rushed up to. Once he approached, however, he came to see those dark circles under his eyes, wide and gazing into nothingness.

“What are they doing here?” He asked.

“Maybe they’re following you.” Answered Derrota.

“Why?”

“You tell me.”

No coherent answer he could work with. He couldn’t bear to look at it, but at the same time, he could not look away. An afflicted one, wearing the same allegiance, so close, so still. Human, just like him. It gave him chills down his spine. The trail of footprints continued, however, and so he continued on.

Not long after, another body came to light. He walked up to it, to find that it was a dullahan. This one, wearing the colors of Variland, unlike the traitors he had been used to who had cast them away for Nyarlathotep’s. Still, the darkness under her eyes gave it away: Afflicted. Now, as he turned his head to where the trail led, he could already see another silhouette of a body. They were increasing in frequency, and if he knew his luck, they’d not stop any time soon.

He walked up to the next. Another Nostrian. Looking ahead, more bodies lay in wait. Another Nostrian. Another Varilandian. Another Varilandian, another Nostrian. On and on, lying on the ground at ever increasing frequencies, passing by them as he followed the trail as if this had been the aftermath of a battle.

One of them was different. Approaching it in morbid curiosity, he spotted what differed:

It was a trumpart. A Spade, sharing the signs of affliction as the others. Unfocused eyes, staring aimlessly where their head aimed, ignoring all around them and hardly acknowledging his mere presence.

“Nostrians and Varilandians never met anyone from Wonderland.” Said Derrota. “Well, save for you and I.”

He moved on, to then see more and more spades. Soon enough, he came across a few clubs, to then find a few diamonds as well. The Nostrians and Varilandiands from before had lowered in frequency, giving way to more trumparts until they were all that could be seen in such claustrophobic space where the light could reach. Eventually, trumparts were all he saw.

Susan. Lexie. They were there. He saw them, creepy as they were, their once lively personality reduced to nothing as the darkness under their eyes took hold. Gazing around, he saw yet more familiar faces. The Two of Spades. The Ace of Clubs. Even the Ace of Spades and Ace of Diamonds, all quiet and still enough to pass for dead on the ground.

And then, he saw Freiksgaardians, having suffered the same fate.

Freiksgaardians, here of all places, now of all times. Were they caught by the affliction, after their eventual invasion? They must’ve been, if Derrota’s time was after Nostrum and Variland fell. If those two could not last, then no other would.

“What’s… going on…?” He asked as he walked on.

“Have you not put the pieces together yet?” Answered Derrota.

But it didn’t matter where he looked, or how far he marched, he could not see her. Why did she walk off? Why is she leading him through this mess? He couldn’t tell, and it only tired him more than he already was.

“I’m done playing games, Derrota.”

“I assure you, this is no game.”

More and more Freiksgaardians, though so too as well did the Nostrians and Varilandians return. The ones he remembered from that conflict which had yet to come, their armor facing slight enough chances to differ them from the ones a fair distance back. All of them, afflicted.

The footprints ended in one body in particular amongst the others. A smaller one with a peculiar cloak, leaving him in puzzlement and confusion. He walked up to it to find the person lying chest down, cloak obscuring its figure, though when he turned the body face up, his thoughts had been confirmed.

It was Derrota, with the darkness under her eyes turning it undeniable that she had fallen as well. His mind faced a barrage of questions. For how long? Had she been like this ever since he got here? What was the voice, then? Whose? Too many questions at the same time, overloading him enough to leave his mind blank and half-unresponsive.

Beside her, however, her gun rested against the snow. The very first weapon he had seen in this whole mess, or at least one he could get his hands on; even his longsword was gone, and none of those around him had such thing. But as he grabbed it, he could hear footsteps approach.

“All of us were caught by the emission.” Said Derrota. The Derrota who, startling him at that, calmly arrived to his side to stand by her own body. She even held her own gun. “Our little journey had no guarantee to succeed, and so we paid the price.”

His eyes shifted from the one on the ground to the one beside him. That was it. The emission. It caught everyone, even Derrota, even him. It was over. Unable to believe, he quietly shook his head.

“No.” He said, bringing his hand to his head. “No, this… this can’t be it, there has to be some other way.”

“Would you actually want it to keep going on and on, Maverick?” She asked, turning to him.

“…What?”

“You just don’t get it, do you? Have you never stopped to consider that you might be causing more harm than good?”

The words and the hints of hostility silenced him and his thoughts. For a few seconds, he could do nothing but look at her in confusion and indignation as he lowered his hand. Though she had no darkness under her eyes, something felt just as off about her to him.

“Bullshit.”

“Really? Think about everything you’ve set out to do and how it failed.”

“Like what?” He retorted, defiant.

“You joined the infantry to protect your home and loved ones. You joined the paladins for the same thing. To protect those that would inevitably fall regardless. Nostrum and Variland were torn apart by the affliction and will even cease to exist in your lifetime, and you and I know your wife will face great danger during that mess with Freiksgaard and Melanie’s return.”

“You’re asking a simple human to stop an apocalypse. You of all people would know that it’s not a fucking walk in the park and how easily things can go wrong!”

“Is that really what you believe?” She added, scorn growing in her expression. “That you did the right thing, and that you did your best? Tell me, were you thinking the same thing when you volunteered to come here to Wonderland and so conveniently forget about what suffering you’d bring should you never return to those you left behind? Those who would seek to save you, like Rebecca? You could’ve just as easily left it to a paladin who faced no such risks, but on you went to play hero.”

“They figured it wise to send someone like me fearing that another person would end up stuck there if a monster claimed them.”

“‘End up stuck there’, as if that’s not what happened to you.”

Though he wished to retort, he could not come up with anything, condemned to bottle up the anger and wishes to curse at her out loud.

“Then, you tried to save Rebecca.” She continued. “It didn’t go as planned, did it? You messed up the timelines. You turned yourself into a magnet for the affliction with that obsession to rescue her from monsterization, and even in another timeline succumbed to it, dragging Rebecca down with you.”

‘I didn’t know it’d end up that way’, he wanted to say. But that was just an excuse. In reality, he should’ve known. The affliction is unforgiving, and in those instances, it costed him dearly. As much as she hated it, in his mind, he could not say she was wrong. ‘Why was I so stupid? What the hell is wrong with me?’, he started to ask himself. What anger he had, no longer was directed at her.

“Remember when you taunted the Ace of Hearts?” She continued. “It was pure luck that the Ace of Diamonds showed up there and then. She’d have slaughtered you, otherwise. Nobody would be there to return to Nostrum and Variland to warn them of Freiksgaard, and nothing would have changed. All that pain, all that misery, everything the cards had done, just for you to decide you’re done.”

He couldn’t bear to listen. He knew nothing to retort with. In his mind, there was nothing he could say to even contest it.

Her scornful look then mellowed.

“Well, not like it matters.” She said, her tone abruptly turning calm and collected. “The emission rendered everything redundant in any case. I suppose that’s a luxury for you, Maverick. It doesn’t matter how much of a failure you are, the end would’ve been the same. It’s over, and now we can be at peace, but… don’t feel bad about it. There are still a few things that can be done.”

Puzzled, he wondered what she meant, until he caught her quietly raising her gun with the barrel aimed towards him. Shock, fear, confusion, indignation; such an eerie combination of emotions, all hammering at once.

“What are you doing?” He asked almost in whisper, words barely escaping his mouth.

“Consider everything that happened because of you.” She answered. “I know it’s hard to believe, Maverick, but you’ve turned into a threat. Perhaps things would’ve played themselves better had you not been here to just accelerate things. Nostrum and Variland almost killed themselves to stop the afflicted from converting a lilim, and you were the one thing that led me to the center of Wonderland, and to my very own affliction, rather than keep roaming around safely. I’d even dare say that you’d cause less harm afflicted.”

This wasn’t happening.

“I’m going to count to five, then I’m pulling the trigger.”

This wasn’t happening. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. It hurt to think of. Where have things gone so wrong? What the hell happened? Too many things to think of at once, and now Derrota sought to put him down.

Derrota.

Was it? Was she real? What about this place?

“…You’re not real.” He forced out the words, holding his head in both headache and disbelief. “This is the affliction. This is all in my head.”

“Are you sure?” She answered. “Who knows, Maverick. Maybe it’s in yours, maybe it’s in mine. One.”

“You’re the affliction. You’re just what the affliction wants me to see! What it wants me to hear!” He shouted, fury and agony taking hold once more, grasping what had been Derrota’s gun in both hands and aiming it at her in the same way.

“Is it really telling you something, or is it just opening your eyes to what you refused to hear? Two.”

“Refusing to hear what? The voices that tell me to give up?!”

“If that’s what you believe, then shoot me!” She taunted. “But you know what I am here for, and you know what happens if you succeed.”

“What? What will happen?”

“I’ve been born far into the time that will be altered. The moment it’s changed, the moment the reasons for me to even be here in the first place are removed, I will cease to exist.”

He was struck silent.

“You will… disappear?”

“How far are you willing to go for those you wish to protect, Maverick? Three.”

Hardly any words came to mind, any sentences, any thoughts.

“Hard to choose, is it? Either I turn afflicted, or I cease to exist. I wouldn’t blame you for choosing the latter. You Nostrians and Old Varilandians were quick to choose mass executions over monsterization, back in the day. Dirk Goridian had the same spirit as well, didn’t he? To choose his own death over capture, in that war.”

“That was–“

“Different? I’m sure it was. So, what will it be? Four.”

Maverick said nothing. Carbine aimed at Derrota, finger on the trigger, but nothing occurred. His erratic breathing gave it away, his mind had been at its limit long, long ago. For those few seconds, silence reigned, with only his breath and heartbeat to ward off the ringing of his own ears.

“Is this really what you want, Maverick?” She asked, to receive no response from him. “So be it. Five!”

The gunshot tore through the silence, though in the eternal void it gave not an echo. Following a second, a gun fell against the snow.

Derrota gazed low, looking at how from her torso emanated a faint, pitch black smoke reminiscent of the affliction. Her gun now lay at her own feet, and after a moment, she quietly raised her head to Maverick, whose gun still had that smoke coming out of the barrel.

“No matter what happens next, don’t be too hard on yourself.” She said, tone unchanged as if she had received no wound at all. “Despite it all, there’s still the chance you can go home…”

Her words paused, though Maverick saw her growing a pained, sorrowful smile.

“Lucky you.”

She then disappeared in smoke.

His let his shoulders drop, gun left hanging by one hand as all strength faded from him. A sigh in relief escaped him, but was it really in relief? He couldn’t even tell. Everything turned numb. Blank. Couldn’t think anymore, couldn’t make any effort anymore. It’s as if he had turned into a husk; too much things to think of, to the point his mind locked them all out, leaving him empty.

Glancing around, the bodies still remained over the snow. Freiksgaardians. Varilandians. Nostrians. Derrota’s as well.

All his strength left him, letting himself fall sitting over the snow, raising his visor to rub his head. Maybe it really was all in vain. All that additional suffering, just to reach the same end; assuming he succeed at all, and didn’t just worsen things more than if he had never come.

More footprints, ahead of him leading into the void. Not human. Great ones, too big.

The Jabberwock’s.

It was lurking around, wasn’t it? But it did little to frighten him. It was little more than just insult to injury. He couldn’t care less, now.

Footsteps. Light ones, coming from behind. Curious he turned his head, to catch a black and white figure arriving to his side. A cheshire. Rebecca, holding her hands together behind her. Any joy or excitement of seeing her, however, simply was not there; most likely, it was just another of the affliction’s trickery, leaving him to stare aimlessly ahead again.

“It’s dark, isn’t it?” She said.

Willingness to resist dissipated. There was just no point. Grandiose speeches of strength and defiance would just be lost in the darkness.

“Yeah.” He answered.

The silence returned, until a few seconds later he heard the Jabberwock’s growl far, far ahead.

“The jabberwock’s still around.” She said. “It’ll be hard to defeat it.”

‘Hard to defeat’, he wondered. The memory still felt fresh, of how even the Ace of Spades had difficulty in bringing it down. ‘Hard’ simply didn’t cut it. Impossible, more like.

“…Yeah.”

“Do you think you can do it?”

No response. What was there to say, other than the obvious ‘no’?

Rebecca then snickered.

“There’s no hope, is there?” She said.

He lowered his head, irritation and resignation festering in his mind. Still silent, he could only wonder for how long the affliction would haunt him here. He already got the point, there was no need to drive it home.

“What about the hope all the others have in you?”

Puzzled, he raised his head to find her walking ahead, reaching the very edge where the light met the dark. There, she halted.

“A wise man once said that the light which illuminates sees nothing but darkness around it,” she continued, “but those that find themselves in the dark will gather by its side.”

Past a few seconds, she turned her head to him partly, looking at him from the corner of her eyes with a warm smile.

“It’s dark, isn’t it?”

Though he looked at her, he could not tell what she meant out of it.

“Everyone’s gone.” He answered.

“So it would seem.” She answered, turning to him and marching once more to his side. “What happened?”

“I failed them.”

“But you are gone as well, aren’t you? Who failed you?”

No response. Only thoughts he could not tell apart ran through his mind, without a clear answer to give. ‘Himself’, he could only guess.

“Had you fallen in Acerrae, you wouldn’t have said ‘Indrick failed us’, would you?”

“…No.”

“Had you fallen in Acerrae, you wouldn’t have wanted him to give up over the losses, would you?”

“No.”

“Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to hear you.”

Her steps began anew. Though he remained staring ahead without aim, her footsteps ended after just a few, halting a little past him.

“How many of those who fell are the same?” She asked. “Fallen, yet still wanting you to go on? Even Derrota, knowing the choices were either affliction or disappearance, helped you and the others as much as she could.”

He frowned. Confusion, bordering epiphanies. She couldn’t deny it. Derrota truly had come of her own accord. But still, that was just one of too many issues; some, brought by his own hand.

“What about you?” He asked. “Look at what you’ve become…”

“What about you?” She asked in return. “Look at yourself, sitting here contemplating whether to give up.”

It had struck him silent. Though he opened his mouth to respond, there simply was nothing he could come up with to answer. He had nothing to say, for better or worse, closing his mouth again. In time her footsteps resumed, approaching him until she lowered herself and gently wrapped her arms around him from behind.

“It’s not about what you do when others stand with you. It’s about what you do… when there’s nobody left.”

On and on, eclipsing all thoughts, her words echoed in his mind. Then, she let go, but that which she had said still left him lost.

“But…” He asked, just to turn his head and find that Rebecca was nowhere to be seen.

No matter where he looked, he could not see her, and to check her footprints revealed that they ended where she had just been a second ago.

But there was no black smoke of the affliction. She had disappeared as she used to do, gone in the blink of an eye, just as she was out of sight. More questions bombarded him. Was that the affliction? Was it not? ‘She used her memory of you as a conduit’, he recalled Derrota say.

‘What you do, when there’s nobody left’…

Gazing down to the gun he had taken from Derrota, he began to lightly shake his head. It was over. There was no hope. What did it matter, if everyone else was gone? What difference would it make, to walk to his doom than accept it in comfort? They were all afflicted already. Victory and defeat, words that lost their definition as the line between the two blurred to form one. In victory, affliction. In defeat, so too. He could not chase after either anymore.

All he could chase after… was just to stay true to himself. Be it with others beside him, or alone in the dark.

Aching in body and spirit, he forced himself up and walked over to Derrota’s body, still gazing aimlessly above. Then, he lowered himself and took a few pouches off her; powder and bullets, for the gun he still held in hand. As best as he remembered, if the affliction didn’t grant him unholy assistance in the endeavour, he reloaded her gun and left it ready to shoot. Then, his eyes fell on the fallen lilim once more.

“…Goodbye, Derrota.” He lamented, to then lower his visor and set off after the jabberwock’s trail.

Scream, shout, terror and dread brought back thousandfold as the jabberwock roared at him in the emission. As if fire and brimstone raged around him, the dark blue tint of the surroundings intermittently illuminated by the lightning had now been replaced by the nigh-permanent blinding light of a hundred suns giving the image of a cosmic rage scorching the earth and all who stood upon it. The emission still occurred, its hellish effects now visible to he who had broken out of the afflictive purgatory it sought to condemn him to, just to arrive to the beast still pinning him down.

But his continued scream in fear changed. What emotions had been bottled up since what purgatory he had been forced into broke free in force. Anger, grudge, indignation, irrational fury and suicidal hatred at those who slighted not just him but all others who had followed him here, surfacing all together. That maw still terrified him to the bone, but that sense of terror turned into the catalyst wrath to drown it out. Wrath, for terror. Wrath, for that which had haunted him, taunted him, slighted him, and taken everything from him. Terror, no longer causing him to panic, but to frenzy. For victory, he cared not, much less for any semblance of safety or well being. It was a primal lust, to fight it even if out of pure spite.

His terrified scream and expression swiftly turned into one of rage. Though once paralyzed in fear, he clenched his fist and threw it against the beast, striking against the gum of its teeth. It recoiled in mild pain and surprise, doing little more than piss it off; to the next strike he attempted, it clamped down its massive teeth upon it, biting his arm and digging in.

The chaos of the surroundings altered. What noises of violent winds and howling turned into screams; a hundred million condemned souls singing a wailing chorus out of key, each one louder than the last. The winds themselves, so thick around them that he could hardly see a meter past as if he was stuck in the eye of a fire tornado, had altered as well; he could see them, the faces, distorted and pained within the gusts.

But he did not care. Though the jabberwock had left his arm useless, he smashed the pommel of his broken sword against its flesh. Over, and over, and over, rage coursing through his veins almost immunizing him to all that surrounded him, until the mutated beast drove the claw of its foot into his chest. Though the scenery remained as it was, in the blink of an eye Maverick saw the aberration losing its flesh, turned into a putrid skeleton of its former self with just a few organs like its eyes, tongue, and gums left in place.

Rather than to be driven mad, he saw it for what it was: An opportunity, for it made him realize its eye was within reach. With one last shout he thrust what little remained of his longsword’s blade and struck it right in the eye, forcing an ear-splitting screech out of the mutant. It flailed back and forth, jerking its head back violently enough to steal the longsword from his grasp and release his arm, to then throw him aside in agonizing force.

He struck a wall, to then strike the ground. For a second he felt himself having gone deaf, only to find that the noises had subsided quite a lot. Hardly even recovering, he quickly raised his head and saw the jabberwock take flight and fly away, leaving the courtyard. So too the blinding light had subsided: If he could tell well, the emission had moved outward to Wonderland’s outer parts, leaving this place as afflicted as it would ever be.

He stood back up, though he felt his adrenaline rush beginning to subside. Clear effort and pained grunts escaped him, holding his belly as he remained partly hunched over.

It was gone. The jabberwock was gone. It had left, flown away.

Somehow, he felt robbed. He had accepted the idea of falling against it, and the damn thing just decides to run away. To punch it until he fell, and here he was, pained and useless without even what pisspoor excuse of a sword that thing had left him. Frustration festered, putrid and ugly as it was for a last stand cut short, until he let out a cathartic shout to the uncaring sky.

And then, there was silence.

His helmet had been damaged, dented. How it got this bad, he couldn’t tell, whether it had been the jabberwock or the onslaught of all other battles he had not noticed till now. When he took it off, the hinges of his visor broke off. What did it matter, now? What would a helmet do, now? Little, if anything; he let go, and against the grass it fell.

He couldn’t move his arm. Afflicted Demon Realm Silver, or similar effect; it felt as if those teeth had severed his nerves. Not even the feeling of pins and needles existed. He really was useless, now.

Thoughts lingered on. Harsh thoughts, fears, those which invited resignation. From out the neck of his clothes he fished for the chain of his rosarius, taking it out and only confirming what was already obvious:

Pitch black. Everyone was gone. What blinding white light once shone, had ceased to exist.

Though exhausted, though pained and tired, though forgetful over the adrenaline rush seconds ago, he knew it was hardly over. Maybe it’d be over soon, but still, not yet. Glancing around, he found a certain hallway decorated in far fancier iconography and colors than any other path he could take. Knowing Wonderland’s weird motifs, he could only conclude it’d lead to the central area of this castle, and perhaps to the Queen of Hearts, and so he tucked his rosarius back in.

To take a step forward turned into a titanic task. His body almost refused to move. He stumbled forward, almost falling by his deteriorating condition, but still on his two feet remained. What little he could handle turned into an uneven gait, shambling to the colorful hallway where statues of various creatures flanked the carpet.

When he entered the hallway, he could see it clearly now. The statues. One which he passed, he halted in front of, looking at it standing tall and towering over him. A lifesized trumpart standing over a marble block. He knew her. The Ace of Clubs. Stern, not unlike a librarian, certainly fitting for her clothing. In the opposite direction, he saw yet another, the Ace of Spades, just as stern though with a rigid pose befitting of a too-disciplined commander.

Moving on, he came across another statue which he paused in front of as well, seeing the Ace of Diamonds in marble. True to her eccentricity, she had both her arms extended with a smug smile, as if she taunted someone. ‘Taunting’, he pondered, just to remember that time she danced in front of the Ace of Hearts. Looking at the opposite side, there she was, the Ace of Hearts. Though she smiled, and though it seemed an honest and warm one, with her hands outstretched forward inviting a soft embrace, he couldn’t help but feel a chill down his spine as the unfortunate implications of affliction left that pose to convey different things.

But, it still was a reminder. She wasn’t always afflicted. Certainly tragic, that he only ever saw her in her fallen state.

And that was the end. In front of him a few steps away stood a great door. Lord knew what awaited behind it, but regardless of what, he still had to cross it. Shambling on with his heart on his throat and fueled almost entirely by spite, he approached it. With one arm left nonfunctional and the other busy holding his aching torso, he saw no reasons to bother himself with courtesy; as he arrived to the door, he smashed his shoulder against it and flung it wide open.

The throne room, as elegant and pompous as would be expected from she who ruled these lands.

“It’s been a while, paladin.” Greeted a familiar voice he’d have rather not heard.

A little distance next to the room, he saw Melanie cross-armed leaning against the wall with a too confident smile on her face. However, she did nothing, just look at him in place as he did the same with her. If she wanted to do anything, now was the best time, and yet, there she stood.

Turning his head to the front again, he saw two more figures sitting next to each other with their tea. Smug, amused, the two of them as they silently gazed at Maverick past his entrance. Swarthy and robed, imagery which hurt his head to look at, he could tell the sorceress next to the throne was Nyarlathotep. On the throne itself, in clothes too elegant and grin too arrogant, with a look too young and ornaments and colors too flashy, he hardly had anyone else to assume her as. An Alice mutation of white hair and red eyes, of spade tail and wings to match and horns reminiscent of a crown, a lilim, the Queen of Hearts.

And without the affliction.

“The man himself!” Cheered Nyarlathotep from her seat. “Fancy journey, was it not?” She said, to then turned her eyes to the Queen of Hearts. “Was I not correct? These humans are such a great source of entertainment.”

“Oh, you’ll almost get me to admit that was just too cruel to that boy~” She snickered, devious and amused.

Nonsense.

Why?

Here he thought he’d find the affliction tearing through the lilim, and she was just having tea time with Nyarlathotep. Laughing. Lacking the affliction, giving away it was all of her own accord. Did she not know what was going on outside? What nonsense, she had to know. A final glance at Melanie only returned that taunting smile, as if she knew what he had just thought about, what he had seen, what he had come to conclude. With grunt of exhertion, he shambled forward once more towards the lilim and the sorceress, blankminded and catatonic.

“Gotten past everything and reached the center, hm?” Grinned Nyarlathotep. “Well done! I knew you could do it. Can’t say the same about the others, though…”

“What… did you do to the others…?” He gasped the question out, lungs already failing over the exhaustion. “Are they…”

“Afflicted, as you Nostrians tend to call it. Yes. Unfortunate, no?”

“Damn human.” Cursed the lilim inbetween a snicker. “I put all my money on the Ace of Spades outlasting you. You costed me quite a bit, you know?”

He could only blink blankly, staring at her. What had it been? A bet? Entertainment? He remembered the Ace of Spades’ eyes after her wound by the affliction. Was it for dumb laughs?

“Well, guess that’s that.” Nyarlathotep stood up, placing her now empty teacup over a small table aside. Then, she turned to the lilim. “I have to say, your ideas were quite… fascinating, on what to have happen. Emissions? Having him stuck in what looked like the center of the sun? I almost dread to imagine your full creative potential.”

“It was…” He whispered the question out, turning his head to the lilim. “It was you?”

The lilim in return gave a nonchalant shrug.

“As for you…” Said Nyarlathotep, gaining his attention once more. “You’ve been a good sport. How about a token of gratitude for the great show? I’ll get rid of the affliction in Wonderland as if I had never come here. Very generous, no?”

He could not say a thing. Not even a simple ‘What?’ escaped his mouth, as he stared on stupefied bordering collapse by his deteriorating condition. Getting rid of the affliction, and even saying it so lightly. Did she not care about spreading it? He couldn’t understand. If she was so willing to let go, then what did she seek? His mind could not process it. It was nonsense. Pure nonsense. So nonsensical, it had begun to give him a headache.

Then, Nyarlathotep snapped her fingers.

“Done.” She said before turning to the lilim. “Can I interest you in this affliction as a more permanent gift?”

“Nah.” She chuckled. “If they sent this guy the moment they caught whiff that you walked this way, then I don’t feel like dealing with whatever annoyance they might send once they figure that one out.”

“Fair enough. Farewell.”

And so, Nyarlathotep disappeared in a cloud of black smoke.

That was it.

That was it.

As much as he pondered those words, it just didn’t click. ‘That was it’. A simple forgetful snap of her fingers, and supposedly the affliction was gone. He couldn’t believe it, but as he fished his rosarius out once more, no longer did he see the glint of the affliction. It shone various vibrant colors, no doubt the demonic energy of Wonderland at play, but the black glint was nowhere to be seen. Turning around, Melanie had departed as well.

They really were gone.

“You Order folk are absolutely hilarious sometimes.” Said the Queen of Hearts, gaining his attention to spot her standing up and depart. “No wonder mother keeps you around.”

He follower her with his eyes, but just as she was about to leave through a door, she halted in place.

“…Your wife’s a cheshire now, isn’t she? Good luck with that one, boyo. They’re fucking annoying.” She said, to then leave for good.

Now, he had been left alone.

What a joke. Nyarlathotep snaps her fingers, and suddenly the affliction is gone. He and the others didn’t do shit, they were always at her whims from the very start.

It was all so exhausting. It was over, then. He could just drop dead and call it a day, could he not? Even if he disagreed, his blurring vision and numbing body would beg to differ. He was already losing his sense of balance. The cold, hard floor seemed so comfortable as well, and his heavy eyes tormented him to keep them shut. He found his limit. Casting all thoughts away, he stumbled forward, and fell.

But it was not the floor he struck. Rather, a soft and warm embrace caught him. When he opened his eyes, he saw again that black and white checkerboard motif.

“Beckie?” He whispered.

“You did your best, did you not?”

Left silent for a second, in due time he recollected his thoughts.

“Yeah.”

“Was it enough?”

Was it? Did he do anything? Nyarlathotep had decided what would happen, not him.

…But he was still only human. Was there really anything more he could’ve done? Anything that he’d ask of others, had it been someone else in his place? For better or worse, the affliction was gone. Regardless of what brought to it, he did his part, and be it adversity or cosmic horrors, he can’t say he truly gave up.

“Yeah.” He said, bringing his hardly-functioning arm and returning tight the embrace. It no longer mattered that she was a monster. As a human or as a cheshire, Rebecca still remained Rebecca. Maybe she did save him from Wonderland after all, appearing when he was stuck in that snowy void. “Yeah, it was enough.”

Rebecca gave a light laugh to herself, contagious enough for Maverick to join in as well. After a few moments, Rebecca loosened the hug to look at him in the eyes. What contrast there was, his muddied face and almost hollow expression against her pristine skin and so cheerful a look. Then, she leaned closer to him for both to then connect her lips. Seconds turned to minutes in that kiss, until she parted with him and looked at him once more.

“Mav?” She asked.

“Hm?”

“Let’s go home.”

‘Home’. He’d never disagree. A smile grew on him in silent agreement, though the attempt to take a step aside was only met with his legs almost giving in.

“Careful~” She said, quick in her movements to catch him once. She then put his arm over her shoulders, for both to slowly depart to the castle’s entrance.

Great strikes echoed through the castle. Maverick and Rebecca approached the great barricaded doors, seeing all shake as over and over the force of something akin to a battering ram struck. Little by little, the barricade gave way, until with a final impact the doors pushed it away just enough to be opened. They had broken through.

The light. The promise of safety. He could hardly see who it was by the door, the light outside leaving them as faint dark silhouettes against the clearing skies signalling the sun’s return. Murmurs and chatter flooded in, the silhouettes withdrawing as the paladin and the cheshire approached, to then cross outside.

Clouds still loomed overhead, though the sun shone brightly through the gaps as the blue hue of the sky revealed itself. The storm had subsided, the winds had ended without even a mild breeze to remain, and he could swear some birds had begun chirping far, far away. What had once been a pitch black darkness now had been cast away by a blazing sun high above, strong as midday.

Now, he saw them. The Ace of Spades. The Ace of Diamonds. The Hollows. The trumparts, even Hearts, all staring at him with baffled looks and wide open eyes in deafening silence. Many others lay scattered about as well, those left standing helping those who had fallen, including the Ace of Clubs trying to wake up the Ace of Hearts; knowing what he heard, they would’ve been afflicted in normal conditions, but with how he saw no dark circles under anyone’s eyes, he could only hope all would be fine.

“He… did it…?” Whispered the Ace of Spades, to then raise his voice high. “…He did it!”

Cheers broke out in unison from all present.

“Maverick!” He heard that old voice shout, to then spot Derrota arriving in haste with her gun as walking stick. “Maverick, thank Lord you’re fine.” She said as she arrived, though upon locking eyes with him, her happiness faded ever so slightly. “You’ve seen things, have you not?”

“Derrota, is it true?” He asked, gently letting go of Rebecca now that he only needed to stand in place.

“What is?”

“That you’ll… disappear, when I warn the others of Freiksgaard.”

All fell silent, attention then fixated at the lilim. Her faint smile soon eroded, leaving way to a sorrowful look.

“Most likely, if this works the way I think it’ll work.” She answered. “The timeline will be altered before I would even be born. The circumstances that shaped me as a person would… just not be there. I’m sure another Derrota will be born, but she will not be the one you knew here in Wonderland.”

The confirmation still left him as wordless as the revelation within the afflitive purgatory.

“…Are you really sure you want to go through with this?” He asked.

“If I’m sure?” She snickered, though with too great a hint of sorrow mixed in. “Maverick, I don’t have a place I can call home anymore. I haven’t seen mom and dad for half my life. I even dread to see them again, knowing what must’ve happened. And that’s just what I’ve gone through in my twelve years; how many things will I have gone through by the time I’m twenty? Thirty? Forty? Is this a life really worth living?”

No words. Nothing came to mind. All he could do was lower his head and purse his lips, hearing too tragic a life that he could not wish on anyone. The alternative, however, was to wipe away any traces of her memory from time. It’s as she had said:

The Derrota he’ll eventually see, would not be the one before him.

“But… can you do me a favor?”

“What do you need?” He raised his head to her.

“When you do meet me in the new timeline… Talk to me. I’ll still be born with what Nyarlathotep did to my parents, and I’ll still have the cursed book. I’m sure I’ll be more than receptive to the idea that this mess with the timelines happened. All these memories don’t have to be lost.”

“I will. I promise you, I will.”

Her joyous smile returned. How many times had he seen her truly happy? He couldn’t tell. That sight alone warmed his heart, enough for him to return just as joyous a smile. But, without warning, she stepped forward and surprised him with a great hug. After his shock wore off, he returned it in kind.

“Thank you, Maverick.”

“For?”

“I’ve spent too much time trying to figure out how to do this. My only hope was that I’d find the paladin that was lost in Wonderland at this time, and return him to warn the others. I feared that what happened here would have been so horrifying that you’d not persevere and get out, and at times I truly gave up all hope… but you did it, despite it all.”

What was he to say, to such a thing? ‘Yes, I did it’, ‘I’m a paladin, we are meant to go through these things’, ideas came to his mind, but perhaps the most fitting would still just be silent acknowledgement. He needed not reinforce it, if he had been the one to go through it all.

Derrota soon stepped off, sniffing and clearing a few tears off her cheek with the sleeve of her jacket.

“When you go back to Nostrum and Variland, tell them it was the affliction that taunted you about the future.” She said. “I can’t tell what might happen if mom and dad learned that you met their future daughter, and I assure you that they’d fish out every horrifying detail they can get from you. They might end up behaving too differently for the timeline to continue as it should. I was never here. Derrota does not exist… yet.”

“I understand.”

Footsteps approached; Derrota and Maverick turned, just to see the Ace of Diamonds arriving cross-armed with an eyebrow raised. When Maverick followed her gaze, he found her looking at the cheshire beside him.

“A cheshire, eh?” She said. “Well aren’t you lucky. Got your ticket out of Wonderland right there, boyo.”

“Certainly tragic that you’re leaving, though I can’t really blame you.” Approached the Ace of Spades. “How about we accompany you to the border? It’s the least I can do.”

“Yeah, I’m in too. Oi Clubs, how–” Said the Ace of Diamonds, turning to the Ace of Clubs, though interrupting herself upon finding her slapping the life out the Ace of Hearts in an attempt to wake her up. The Ace of Diamonds then returned her eyes to Maverick. “Those two are gonna be busy. So, shall we go?”

“…I wanna go home.” He snickered. Rebecca returned to him, placing his arm over her shoulders once more as they were ready to depart. However, a particular noise alerted them; turning to the source, they found Derrota having formed a space anomaly on the spot.

“I’m not taking chances, so this’ll only take you to the forest you came in through.” Said Derrota. “From here on, it’s all up to you. Good luck.”

“I see. Then, see you in a while, Derrota.”

With a nod in farewell from Derrota, Rebecca and Maverick stepped into the anomaly, followed by the Ace of Spades and Ace of Diamonds.

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