From the forest’s exit to the grassy plains he treaded on, it seemed lands untravelled enough for nature to claim it for itself, devoid of any marks of human- or monster- civilization. Not even a mere dirt road could be found, condemning him to go around the patches of tall grass as if it were a labyrinth. The scenery seemed a similar sight to the one before he had ended up jumping into the anomaly, although far, far drier, without a minuscule puddle to exist, as if it had not rained in a good few days despite a hint of humidity present in the air, and the clouds still looming overhead converging now south rather than north.
No matter how far he walked, however, he saw no signs of the club nor of the spade. The labyrinthine flora didn’t help, instead leaving paranoid thoughts within him that perhaps he is extremely close, but the vegetation hid it from him, and due to that he’d eventually separate from them further without even knowing.
Something latched onto his mouth and torso, pulling with enough strength to almost throw him against the floor with an attempted shout, to see all his surroundings now blocked by the grass he had been pulled into. Immediate resistance followed on his part, attempting to fight back the arms that had ambushed him only to receive a ‘Shhhh!’ in return.
“It’ll hear you!” The voice whispered, a familiar enough voice to make him halt altogether. The hand over his mouth slowly moved back, as did the grip on his torso lessen, freeing him for him to turn and see who he had thought it was. The spade, crouching, taking a step back while staring high at the sky from within the cover of the grass.
“What will?” He asked in similarily low whisper.
She remained silent, still looking above. His eyes followed her gaze to the cloud-covered expanse, to then see past the top of the grass movement of a flying creature, its dark color contrasting against the puffy whiteness of the clouds which had yet to form into merciless storms.
An mess of a monster. A dragon in base, of great wings and claws, yet still radically different in ways he could not discern.
“Dragon?” He whispered, seeing it pass.
“Got warned of them before coming here. That’s no jabberwock I ever heard of.”
“It is, it just… changed, just like everything you see.”
“After the sorceress arrived?”
With the jabberock at a good enough distance, the spade slowly stood up. Maverick followed suit, seeing her step out of the tall grass still staring where the jabberwock flew, prompting him to do the same till both remained out in the open.
“Say, have you seen th–” He attempted to ask, only to be interrupted by something latching onto him from behind as if pouncing, making him stumble forward with a startled grunt, so too startling the spade.
There he saw on his torso a pair of legs in black-and-white checkerboard motif hugging against him, and upon turning his head, he saw the cheshire smiling at him, clinging onto him from behind with legs and arms. Gritting his teeth, a war broke out in his mind between the side which wished so dearly to shove her off, and the side attempting to remain calm.
“I’d be thankful if you could please get off.” He said. The spade with him kept quiet, raising an eyebrow in confusion.
“Ah, I’m afraid I’ll be the bearer of bad news for that request, then.” She answered, smug as ever.
But she did not answer. Rather, her grin grew wider.
Immediately he raised his hands in an attempt to wrestle control, only for the cheshire to so swiftly evade his attempts on and on. Turning and turning, Maverick ranted and grunted attempting to catch her to no avail.
“Help me out here, will you?!” Cried Maverick to the confused spade.
“…I’ve never seen a paladin have a cheshire as a wife.” She crossed her arms. “Have things changed out there?”
“She’s not my fucking wife! Get her off me!”
Before he knew it, the cheshire was gone. Surprise befell him, sure that he’d have at least perceived the sudden lack of weight upon him, but it seemed if it had never been there. Turning around he found the cheshire now standing with her hands behind her, having not made a single noise nor ruckus in somehow getting from him to there much to his amazement and confusion.
“You’re looking for the club now, no?” She asked, gaining both their full attention.
“Yes. Where has she gone to?”
“Go further west, then south-west to the north-western edge of Wonderland. There you’ll see hints that’ll guide you to where she has gone. But, you should hurry.” She said, body disappearing to leave her grin. “The sky might throw another of its hissy fits soon.”
“Hissy fit?” He asked, just as her smile disappeared. “What?”
“Another wave.” Said the spade, cold and stern as she grabbed his arm and nudged him onward before letting go, walking off on her own. “We need to find her and seek shelter soon.”
After glancing to where the cheshire once stood, now seeing only her footprint, he turned and caught up with the spade in their march.
“When it started, some manner of order needed to be established.”
Their long march had led them away from the plains of tall grass, leaving them upon the hilly fields where grass seemed to be lacking in contrast. Dirt became the bulk of the scenery, grass a mere aesthetic luxury in little nail-high patches scattered about already completely dried. For every step they took, now instead of the squishing noise of grass, the grinding of the loose earth below them rang out.
“It started as curiosity,” continued the spade, “but as some people ended up getting caught in the anomalies and others never returned, it started turning into fear. Before things could get ugly, our ace stepped in and organized us to figure out what to do. Since the diamonds were getting a little bit upset about us seeing this change as negative, and the hearts were starting to… do things, it was us spades that got the responsibility of keeping them in check. In exchange, the clubs would help us figuring things out, as curious as they all are.”
“And where is the ace? I’ve only seen the two of spades.”
“She’s gone, probably for good. Last we heard of her, she ended up getting sucked into one of those anomalies chasing that jabberwock. If that jabberwock is flying around freely… I don’t want to imagine what must’ve happened to the ace. We’ve been trying to find her ever since.”
In their silence, their steps reigned in noise, both glancing in all directions as they marched over the hill, attempting to discern any life to find no movement at all, the club least of all. All silent, all quiet, all still, as if time had stopped.
“What’s your name?”
“Who’d have thought I’d get to know a paladin.”
“Same with a trumpart.”
A chuckle escaped her as she glanced at him, but as she turned her head forward once more, her eyes widened and smile dissipated. For a second she halted, before breaking into a run forward a few steps, stopping in place to stare down.
“What did you find?” He asked, walking up to her.
“Footsteps. It’s the club’s.”
“How did you figure that out?”
But he received no response. Instead, as he arrived and looked down, he saw the footsteps and what gave it away so clearly: they were in the shape of clubs. He furrowed his brows in confusion and slight irritation at the somewhat ridiculous sight, to then look back at what footsteps the spade had created. Similarily, they were spades.
Stern complaints about fashion sense surfaced in his mind, though all were cut short by a deep, loud noise. A thunder vibrating the earth, lasting for too long for comfort, filling their ears as if it had come from a monumental lightning strike, frightening them enough for Maverick to swivel his head about in an attempt to find the source.
“…It’s too damn early for a wave!” Shouted Susan, breaking out running forward. “Maverick! Let’s go!”
As if breaking from spacing out, Maverick followed, catching up as quickly as he could and following her to seemingly nowhere.
“Where are we going?!” He asked.
“Might as well follow those footsteps, I’m not seeing any shelter anywhere!”
The spade sill led the way; figuring her to be looking at the footsteps if they had not yet been lost, he couldn’t help but look at the clouds. They seemed to shake, distort, although not the clouds themselves, but rather his eyes affect upon watching them, though only the clouds without the earth and horizon to be affected as well. Looking south, he began seeing flashes of light visible despite the whiteness of the clouds, followed by the thunder arriving to his ears. The clouds flickered, as if beginning to glow before dimming and losing light, losing their whiteness and all color, once more as if his eyes had begun malfunctioning. Light, dark, though with each cycle the lightning and thunder grew worse, as did the clouds turn darker overall. Even the sun high above obscured by the clouds themselves seemed to slowly die, darkening their midst. The earth rumbled harder, the wind began blowing with greater strength, and the lightning strikes grew closer as if expanding from the center.
“Hold on, watch it!” She shouted, halting all of a sudden and extending her arm for him to hit himself with, barely halting in time. Right in front of them on the ground he saw a hole, one seemingly recent as if the earth had collapsed onto hollow earth, with the darkness within just barely revealing soil underneath not too deep below.
A tunnel. A tunnel which the club’s steps ended at.
“I don’t think we’re gonna be able to climb out of there.” He said.
But a single glance south from the spade was all it took for her.
“Would you really want to climb out to that thing?!” She exclaimed, firmly grabbing his arm and jumping down, bringing him with her with a frightened gasp.
Thud. Land. No time for ranting, as the two crawled their way further under solid ceiling into the shadow. At a distance enough that all noise outside turned muffled, they now heard their panting exceptionally clear, at least compared to moments ago. The two then glanced at each other, before standing up.
“What’s this tunnel?”
“I have no idea.” She answered, dusting herself off before snapping her fingers once to see no effect in her hand. She then snapped the again, and upon the third time, an ethereal flame started from her palm, illuminating the surroundings a fair bit. Then, the two began turning around. “I’ve never in my life seen anything like–“
A dormouse, barely reaching half their height. Immediately they saw it strange, silencing both from words and thoughts by her image alone. Filthy, covered in dirt, yet most strikingly, with eyes opened to its absolute limit, along with dark circles under her eyes. She only stood there, watching, shifting glances between the two as they stared dumbfounded, only for the dormouse to quickly turn around and run into the darkness at an exceptionally quick speed. Far quicker than they’d have imagined from someone her size.
With the storm outside worsening each passing second, the two found it unnecessary to communicate their concerns, instead stepping forward at the same time to march further into the tunnel. Little could they see ahead, tunnel seemingly reaching into infinity.
Another dormouse ran in, too fast for them to even see her coming as it spat out an eldritch language. As if putting the fastest horse in existence to shame, she ran between them with enough speed for them to be unable to react at all till she passed, both ending startled out of their minds with a gasp as the spade readied her spear and the paladin his sword, turning their heads to see the dormouse escape sight into the darkness. Heartbeats not lowering upon the paranoia enabled by the darkness and confusion, they moved on forward.
After a good while, they saw the tunnel finishing in proper architecture rather than messily dug soil. Brick lined the walls, save for that which they had come out of; a tunnel dug into the wall of the room, as they came to see. A basement, all they could guess from what they saw with Susan’s ethereal flame illuminating the rather mundane and filthy room.
Noises. From above, some giggling, some steps. Didn’t sound like more dormice, as noisy as they were. Glancing about, Maverick found a staircase almost hidden from sight, just a few steps visible behind a wall; tapping Susan’s shoulder, he pointed their way for her to see, and after a glance to each other, both advanced.
The wooden steps creaked with each movement, yet still the noises above didn’t end. Seeing a dim light from the top of the staircase, Susan extinguished her flame and held her spear tighter with both hands, walking up with Maverick with the noises growing clearer upon each step taken.
Solid footing, that of proper flooring rather than the worn out steps. They followed the dim light through a hallway, clarity of sound giving away that the ones within the house remained next room, and with the door in sight, they slowed down for their steps to be unheard as they approached. Susan arrived to the side of the doorframe, Maverick arriving next to her, and with his hands tight on his sword’s handle, he saw Susan peek through.
“…Lexie?” She asked, to then just casually walk through the door, much to Maverick’s confusion.
Dumbfounded he peeked as she did, only to find a bizarre sight. He found the club, though sitting with a smile on her face and a cup on her hands, greeting the spade who walked up to the table. A round table, with some manner of fancy-dressing mushroom girl at the other end, and a pink bunny standing around, all as cheerful as the club despite the muffled noises of a violent almost-apocalypse outside eclipsing all light. By the table rested one of the few remaining sources of illumination, a mere candle.
Though there he saw the mad hatter and the march hare with dark circles under their eyes. Surprise and confusion befell him, witnessing behavior he’d have hardly imagined from an afflicted individual.
“Ah, so these are your friends?” Asked the mad hatter as Maverick approached to the table. “No wonder the dormice got rowdy.”
“More guests! The more the merrier!” Cheered the march hare, stepping away into another room.
“Come, take a seat.” Invited the mad hatter, pointing to two empty chairs conveniently in front of them by the table. Chairs Maverick could swear never were there.
Susan stepped forward first, moving to chair and sitting by the table. With an eyebrow raised in skepticism, Maverick couldn’t help but give it a second thought about it all, before resigning himself to do the same. Just as he sat, the march hare returned from the same door with a tray, placing it on the table to reveal two steaming cups along with what Maverick felt were supposed to be cookies. Strangest cookies he had ever seen in his life, seemingly moldy, with tendril-like roots adorning the surface and, most baffling, some of which were beating like a heart. As the march hare put one cup in front of him, he saw the liquid within: a black, ichor-like substance which looked as if no light reflected upon it. For how simple it looked, he couldn’t keep away paranoid thoughts after seeing the supposedly-cookies, pondering over what traits they’d have that didn’t affect its appearance.
He heard a sip. Turning his eyes, it was the club who had just brought the cup to her mouth, to let out a calm sigh with a face giving away her enjoyment. Then, he saw the spade taking a sip in all her curiosity, to then raise her eyebrows in pleasant surprise.
But rather than drink himself, his instincts and common sense dictated otherwise, and thus he left the cup on the table.
“A little bird told me that you’re lost.” Said the mad hatter.
“You knew?” Asked the spade.
“Well, if the club is lost, and you two are here too…”
“Ah. Yes, somewhat. We ended up stepping into an anomaly.”
As their conversation began, Maverick gave the house a glance. Still the apocalypse reigned outside, though barely any vibrations could be felt other than the obvious thunder. Despite its apparent small size, able to see out the window the lightshow of episepsy-inducing imagery, the muffled sounds would’ve led him to believe he had been in a massive mansion not even the richest men of Nostrum could afford, in terms of size. A fortress of extremely thick walls and ceiling. And yet, it looked more like a shack, dusty and moldy.
But while he glanced aside, he found a familiar sight again. A dormouse, right next to him staring at him with those wide open eyes sporting dark circles underneath. His heart almost skip a beat, finding in such sudden manner the one who had almost snuck up on him without a noise to be heard, but his peripheral view caught something else. Turning further to looking behind him, he found more dormice. Not one, not two, not three, but enough to fill the entire space behind him up to the walls, even the hallway itself, hundreds of eyes staring at him unblinking, immobile, quiet. Quickly he turned ahead to look at the others, only to find that none seemed to pay any mind to the sudden army of dormice which had arrived, continuing their conversation and giggling along to each comment.
And yet, once he turned around, all the dormice without exception were gone. Again he snapped his head forward to the others, and saw them almost ignoring what had transpired, caring not one bit.
“Well, I’m sure one of my girls found an anomaly that’ll take you back the way you came.” Said the mad hatter, leaning forward and clasping her hands. “Those little things suddenly got a talent for finding strange things, even if they have to dig to find them.”
“Little things, you mean the dormice?” Asked Maverick, sparking his attention.
“Yes. Fancy little bunch, no?”
“Were they always like that? I thought they’d be sleepy all the time, not… like that.”
“After they got those dark circles under their eyes, they turned into some manner of hyperactive insomniacs. Now they’re digging tunnels like it’s the last thing they’ll do.” She said, smile never fading. “Seems to be fashion, now. Those at the center of Wonderland all have it on their faces.”
“…The center? Have you been to the center?”
“No, but I know someone who has, even though she doesn’t have the darkness under her eyes. We’ve talked of many things, and even mentioned a thing or two about a few towers by the southern part of the center, but not much that could be of interest of you.”
“Is there any way we can find her?”
“I’m afraid not. She doesn’t stay in one place for terribly long, so you’ll not have much luck finding her. Although, she’s been here a few days ago. She could be close, but that’s all I’m able to tell you. Now, I’m sure you three have more pressing matters, now that you’ve found each other.”
“Yes.” Answered the spade, leaving her empty cup on the table and standing up. “Please lead us to the anomaly.”
“As you wish.”
The madd hatter led the way with a lantern illuminating her path, followed close by the two cards and the paladin throughout the tunnel. Dormice ran one way to the other in their breakneck speed while spouting alien languages, leaving the paladin and the spade in discomfort while the club and the mad hatter blissfully ignored them altogether. Soon enough, however, the mad hatter stopped as her lantern illuminated a dead end.
“This…” She said, looking down to see a piece of loose earth before kicking it forward. With its distinct noise and distortion, the anomaly revealed itself, making the projectile disappear. “Should be it.”
“Are you sure it’ll work?” Asked the spade.
“Only one way to find out! Thanks for everything!” Cheered the club, taking speed forward before jumping in and disappearing.
Scratching her head, the spade sighed. “That… leaves us no option, huh? Thanks for the tea.” She said, to then calmly march towards the anomaly, to then jump into it as did the club.
Maverick, however, stared with doubts flooding his mind. Without confirmation of where it’ll take him and, worse yet, cautious of it being something a would-be afflicted suggested to him, he couldn’t help but hesitate.
But when he turned around, he not only saw the mad hatter staring with a smile and lantern in hand, but so too the innumerable dormice which had appeared behind her. A massive amount, blocking the way out entirely as all stared, having even climbed on top of each other to reach the very ceiling of the tunnel.
The sight alone was enough. Taking a deep breath, he ran to the anomaly, and jumped in.
Like being grabbed by an extremity and whipped around.
But with the previous experience, he managed to land on his feet this time. A soil of enough grass to notice, rather than the barren hills to the north.
When the disorientation faded out, he saw the club and the spade around him, along with the sky calm as it once was, forcing him to narrow his eyes over what darkness he had been used to till then.
“All good?” Asked Susan, approaching him.
“…Yeah. Where are we?”
“Behind the town hall. Home. Well, not home for you.”
Rubbing his eyes with hints of disorientation still present, he saw the club and the spade depart, prompting him to catch up and follow. They turned the corner as they circled the great building, and soon enough saw more cards in the town. Spades and clubs, a welcoming sight past their separation, but the three came to notice them all staring in the same direction, the direction in which Maverick had arrived from the very first time. Without clue as to what was happening, the three continued till they arrived to the street where a great many other cards waited, and soon enough they saw who it was that arrived marching.
Maverick recognized her. The horns. The wings. The tail. The pale skin, the white hair, the red eyes. The childish appearance.
From the town hall they saw the Two of Spades and Ace of Clubs themselves step out and wait, both in equal curiosity as to the visitor. In due time, in the absolute silence where the lilim’s steps could be heard upon the cobblestone road, she arrived to the two cards to stare at the Two of Spades in particular. Then, she spoke her words.
“I may know where the Ace of Spades is.”