“We saw it all as you see it now, so you’re not missing an awful lot.”
By her words, Maverick gave the surroundings a greater glance as they marched. Tall, drying grass flanked the dirt road they marched on, waist-high for him to see more and more patches of all sizes far away in the plains before hills and forests etched a line over the horizon on one size; on the other, all disappeared in a sea of pale grass as it met the graying skies where clouds had begun to form in greater and greater numbers, skies he remembered all too well.
“Other than that, your guess is as good as ours. Probably better.” Continued the spade, with the club silently following behind. “All we know for sure is that those who go north never return.”
“Those who go the same place those clouds look to be converging towards?”
“Yes. The center of wonderland.”
For a few good steps they marched up ahead, till the spade halting in place prompted Maverick and the club to do the same. A few glances about, and soon the spade stepped off the road into the damp soil by the grass.
“This should be it.” She said, to then be joined by the club.
“What are you looking after?” Asked Maverick stepping off the road and catching up with her.
“Some strange things started happening, and those strange things like to move around. We’re tasked with figuring out where they go, and what exactly they do.”
The spade and the club then separated their own ways, leaving Maverick to stand where he remained without a clue as to what to do himself; little he knew what they looked after, let alone what to do upon finding it, figuring himself an over-glorified escort than anything else.
“Do any of you know why they don’t return?” He asked, making his way to the spade. “Were they attacked? Anything?”
“Nobody knows. I’m sure it wasn’t that, otherwise at least one would’ve managed to escape and warn the others. I wouldn’t put it past that sorceress to have done something to the air up there. Sometimes though, a storm can suddenly start out of nowhere with the sky looking like it’s about to fall off, even though minutes earlier it’d look like this. It’s like a wave from up north, and whoever gets caught unsheltered ends up the same way.”
Confusion befell him, hearing the description of events he had never even heard of before despite facing the affliction himself. However, a sharp noise interrupted his thoughts, making him and the spade turn their heads to face the source just for the tall grass to block their view.
“Oh, don’t tell me…” Said the spade in clear anxiety, picking up pace and rushing to where she heard it with Maverick soon following.
It came from the direction the other club had gone to, till the spade arrived to a great puddle flanked by grass, making violent ripples as if recently disturbed. Without the club anywhere in sight, it didn’t take long for Maverick to imagine what floated in the spade’s mind.
“The puddle swallowed her?” He asked, taking the last step to arrive to her side.
“No. Something else.” She answered, to look around at the ground before picking up a pebble. She threw it at the space over the puddle, to then see it disappear as the air distorted to the eye in incomprehensible ways within a split second, like a mirage intensified up close causing the exact same noise they had heard. “Figured.” She said, looking on almost disappointed while Maverick lowered the had he had just used to cover his head in fright.
“What was that?”
“One of the strange things I mentioned. It likes throwing people all over Wonderland. Well, no matter,” she took a step forward, “we’re gonna have to find her now.”
The question left her frozen in place, to only turn her head to Maverick with a raised eyebrow.
“What do you mean ‘what’?” She asked.
“I don’t feel like getting thrown Lord knows where. Can’t that club just get back here? Aren’t cards able to go around easily or something?”
“It’s not that simple, but it doesn’t even matter. At the time things changed out here, we suddenly had only our feet to move around, much like you humans.”
“Even then, wouldn’t it be better to go back and warn the others that we lost one here?”
“It’s not like they don’t know of the risks. We even knew where these things were. Plus, we’re down from three to two. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take the risk of taking a longer path back home with three of us than going back only with two, and the club would only have the choice of making the attempt alone on her own. I don’t know you paladins handle things, but I’d rather not abandon her like that.”
With a silent gaze the spade waited for a responde, till Maverick sighed and shrugged. With a smile she turned her head forward once more, before jumping forward. The distortion and deafening noise followed as before, erasing the spade from Maverick’s sight till the air stabilized enough to leave it as if she had never been there at all. With anxious eyes, he looked at the anomaly’s would be location as he stepped aside to where the spade was, and with a deep breath, he mustered his strength to then jump forward.
The pained cry escaped his mouth after a loud thud, falling to the ground after what his last memory had seen: the puddle. Now, however, he found himself in a far darker place, staring in all directions to see a thick forest around him. High above, the treetops blotted out what sun would’ve been had it not been for the clouds, devouring most of what light there was. His ears picked up the critters about, a continuous chorus without pause contrasting with the relative silence he had been in just seconds earlier.
With ache and effort he stood up to then give his surroundings another thorough look, but still he found nothing through the trees. All he knew had been reducing to just knowing where he was not.
“You better watch your step, mister paladin.”
It came from above. He immediately found the voice: The cheshire from before, sitting atop a branch.
“Who knows what you might come across, or who.”
“Huh?” He asked. “Where am I?”
But rather than an answer, she slowly banished into the ether, grin remaining visible last before disappearing as well.
“Stupid god damned cat…” He muttered to himself.
No matter where he looked, it all seemed the same. Too many trees, all directions appearing identical, unable to discern what way it would be to get out. Not even some manner of footsteps lay on the ground to hint as to where to go. Wherever the spade and the club ended up, it didn’t appear to be here.
A barely noticeable breeze blew his way, one he only now came to notice. Perhaps, he thought, the way out lied where the breeze came from, as surely not so many trees remained inbetween to halt it altogether. Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, maybe he was being the stupidest person at that moment for assuming it, but regardless of right or wrong, it aided him in taking an otherwise tedious decision. Without delay, he made his way there.
Step after step, past each shuffling noise of grass his feet trampled upon, he came to hear sets not belonging to him. Halting in place, he heard them better, close, without his own noises to drown them out. Narrowing his eyes up ahead, he soon saw the silhouettes appear from the tree trunks, a group of colourful uniform with a motif of red and white. Though differences existed, they still seemed strikingly similar to the motif the spades and clubs had, save for the red replaced by black. Diamond trumparts, he came to see.
By the time he remembered the cheshire’s words, it already was too late. He had remained there long enough for the trumparts to change their expression to one of wonder and curiosity at his presence, halting in place just to continue on towards him ever so slowly.
“Weeell…” greeted the one at the front, marching up to him with a great confident gait, almost arrogant. “What’s such a handsome guy doing all alone in the woods?”
“I’m looking for the rest of my group.” He answered with a quiet step back, fingers twitching in preparation to reach for his sword. Too close for comfort, instincts already warning him of what such a monster might attempt.
“Oh, are you lost?” She asked, still smiling from ear to ear. “In these lands, no less? You must be missing home already, knight. Say, I can guide you to whever you want to go… for a price.”
“You oughta know already~” She said, to then step forward to him far closer than he’d have thought, frightening him enough to take another step back, yet she still took another. Petrified in place with barely time to bring his hand to his sword, the trumpart suddenly halted just a hair’s width from her lips touching his. Though once readying for a kiss, her lips formed a smile once more. “I see…” She stepped back, smiling at his with eyes no longer showing her earlier eagerness. “You’re claimed. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. All the handsome ones are already taken nowadays.”
Without idea how to react, he blinked momentarily before relaxing his posture.
“Well? Cat got your tongue? So, what group did you get separated from? Maybe if one is single you could introduce me to him~”
“I’m… looking for a spade and a club.”
In absolute silence, the diamond’s heart slowly died down. So too did the ones behind her experience the same, leaving the atmosphere to turn tense and unwelcoming.
“Them?” She asked.
“Something the matter?”
She crossed her arms. “I take it you don’t really know what they’re doing.”
“Let’s assume no.”
“You’ve been with them. You’ve seen how they behave, no? Always going one way to the other, never even resting, as if fun wasn’t in their vocabulary at all. Had it only been for that, it’d all be fine, but when these new things started happening in wonderland, do you know what they immediately thought?”
“‘We must stop this’.” She dropped her arms, indignation little by little reflected in her demeanour, as was in the others with her. “Bubbles show up that send you anywhere in Wonderland like a fun little trip, and they want to remove them. The weather changes, and they want to revert it. Ah, the weather…” She smiled once more, to then take a step forward towards him; startled by her advance, Maverick moved his hand to his sword, yet only saw the diamond take further steps towards his side. “It’s getting colder. Clouds are gathering. Do you know what that means?” She continued, now slowly walking circles around him while staring up high. “We might be seeing snow, soon. Imagine it. So long since we’ve seen snow, some of us having never seen it at all, soon able to experience it ourselves in joy and awe, and even throw snowballs at each other! Does the sorceress who visited really mean any harm…?”
“Those clouds probably don’t bring the snow you imagine.” He answered, keeping a keen eye on her yet seeing no dark circles under her eyes, nor under any of the others.
“Why would they not? Plus, it’s still something new. See the normal sights every day, from clear days to stormy nights, and you start actually wanting to see what novelty can be found.”
“And the ones that never returned from the center of Wonderland?”
“I wouldn’t return either, if the closer one got to the center the more fun it became. I’m sure the hearts thought the same way.”
“Then why are you still here?”
“Because the spades and clubs won’t understand. They want to stop it at all costs. We diamonds tried ignoring them, then asking them nicely, even our aces met up to talk it thoroughly, so on and so on, but they always refused to listen. If it’ll take stopping them by force for them to understand, then we can only rest on the fact that we tried everything else first.”
“Well, what do you say then?” She said, halting in front.
“I’ll keep that in mind, though I still need to go.”
“Where to…?” She then asked, skepticism undeniable with her slightly lowered head still looking at him with eyes half-closed.
“Trying to get out of Wonderland alone will be quite a feat, mister knight. We can guide you out without problem. With how you’re already claimed, it’s not like any of us would even lay a finger on you.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’ll have to decline it.”
“And the numerous other threats present? It’ll be quite a tragedy if you walked alone and a jabberwock suddenly descended upon you. Our aid is the best you’re gonna get if you want to get out of Wonderland as quickly and efficiently as you can.”
Her grin then grew from ear to ear, before a chuckle escaped.
“Now, where is it that you’d need to go that you wouldn’t want us around for…?”
At the same time, the diamonds behind her smiled in equal measure, slowly readying their spears and bows. Taking a few steps back, Maverick then saw the diamond in front readying her own spear.
Noise. Sudden. Deafening. Echoing, reverberating, making the critters around him enter a fit of terror and the treetops to shake with the birds scattering away; something struck the diamond in the head, an object unseen that was neither an arrow nor bolt, coming out the other end with a spray of dark fog. Her head immediately jerked back by the blow, before she fell to the ground. The same absolute fright he got, so too got the other diamonds, all of them running away outright before one turned about, ran to the fallen diamond, messily picked her up on her shoulders, and made a run for it.
Turning his head, he found what had created the noise. With the white smoke giving away in an instant the specific position, and an indiscernible stench of something burnt already becoming apparent, he saw the person holding the implement smoke still escaped of in such tiny amounts. Wings, tail ending in spade, horns, traits of a succubus all of a pale color, complementing in turn her white hair tied into a ponytail. Her clothing, however, seemed to treat a fine line into territory which he felt alien; a strange mixture of aesthetic and utilitarian, of fatigues and buttoned up jacket sporting a mixture of brown and green as color, neck of her jacket lined with a beige fur, thick dark gloves, and boots of equal color which design seemed unlike any he had ever seen or heard of before; even a cloak surprisingly close to his design, yet size altered to match her height. Her weapon sparked the same wonder, some manner of lengthy metal tube braced against a wooden stock, highly ornamented and engraved.
And most striking of all, all those traits and equipment seemed to belong to a mere child, not even reaching two thirds his height.
“You are the supposed ‘Maverick’?” She asked. Her blood red eyes shining like rubies through what little smoke remained prevented him from saying a word, seeing them narrow at him. Stern, judging, cold, things he’d expect from anything but a child. “What is it about paladins that attracts danger so much?”
“…Lilim?” He could barely bring himself to ask.
“That is a very astute observation.” She answered, to then sling her weapon to her back.
“Are you… the Queen of Hearts?”
“No. Doesn’t matter. You should focus on finding the other two of your group.”
For a second, Maverick fell silent. Upon examining her clothing further, he found no motif at all of anything resembling Wonderland-ish aesthetics. From that detail alone, he had to stop himself from sighing in disappointment to himself, finding it a dumb question in hindsight. However, other than what lied over her jacket past belt and pouches as if she had been equipped for war, he spotted something familiar hanging by her waist. A book, seemingly mundane yet still with an undeniable familiarity around it. Yet, before he could discern what it was, the lilim turned about and began marching away.
“Wait.” He said, picking up the pace though the lilim did not halt. “Who are you?”
“Will it be of any use to you? We’ve never met before. The only thing you’ll know is who I’m not.”
“And we’ve still met here. At least tell me your name.”
She halted, prompting him to do the same behind her. After a second of idleness, the lilim then turned her head aside.
“…Derrota.” She answered, before resuming her march again into the woods.
Maverick did not follow, but instead stared in confusion, till the trunks hid her presence entirely.
“Fancy fellow, no?”
Raising his head, he found the familiar voice. Again the white-and-black cat, lying over a branch with her arm hanging down.
“Are you here to help me, or to mock me?” He asked.
“I can do either if you please.”
“I’d be content with the former.”
“You have chosen wisely.”
“…So?” He asked.
“So what, sir paladin?”
“Are you going to help me?”
“By just staying there?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how exactly you want me to help you.”
Clenching his fist, he halted himself from grunting in irritation.
“Do you know where I am?” He asked.
“I know indeed.”
“At the opposite end of Wonderland from where you entered, far far in the north.”
“At the opposite end of Wonderland from where you entered, fa–“
“I know that! How is it that this thing threw me so far away?!”
With her smug smile never subsiding, she shrugged with her arm which had been hanging down.
“You have long ways to go if you want to return, Mav.” She said. “Although, I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen a club shyly walking about not long ago…”
“Can you tell me where she went?”
“…Where?” He asked.
“To the west. Follow the breeze, and you’ll go the same way she went. Don’t head south from here, however.” She said, to then begin disappearing. However, her mouth still remained, speaking despite no longer having a body. “That’s where the madmen like to go.” She finished, teeth visible in a wide grin before it too disappeared.
Without a word to say nor a thought to think, he stared at where she once was. Feeling the breeze upon his face, however, he turned his head against it.
No other way but forward, now.