Dead, silent, woods.
Without a leaf to blow by the breeze, without a blade of grass to dance about, the once lush and lively forest Maverick had entered through now remained as dead as his visions. All remained silent, without a leaf to make a ruckus upon the nonexistent winds; the trees lay with their branches exposed, and a thick layer of snow covered all inlcuding the path he had taken.
His skin felt it. The abrupt change from the slight cold of before to the unforgiving frozen expanse. His breath turning visible did nothing but cement the fact. Beside him Derrota’s steps rang out in the eerie silence, cushioned by the snow beneath them; with only a glance he found her thinking the same, zipping her fur-lined jacket till it covered her mouth. Almost agreeing all too well, he followed suit with his scarf.
“Man of the hour!” A voice cheered up high.
Like a flashback to times past, he remembered those words all too well. The cheshire’s first words, with the same tone, in the same direction. When he turned his head, there he found the black-and-white cat sitting on a branch, smiling at him intently.
The question seemed obvious, enough for him to just glance at Derrota.
“I made no mistake.” Calmly answered Derrota. “We are at the exact time Rebecca crossed this path.”
“That’s not what I’m seeing.”
“My eyes work well enough to figure that out on my own.”
He returned his eyes at the cheshire, only to stare perplexed, eyes narrowed upon understanding nothing. Was the timing correct? Were the visions true? Was what Derrota also told him true, for that matter? Not like he could tell, as Rebecca arriving to wonderland so early, let alone monsterizing and waiting for him, already threw all semblance of logic out the window. As illogical as what lay in front of him seemed, it still was tame.
“Take me to an earlier time.”
After his words, Derrota plopped down sitting on the snow, to then immediately open her book. Settling for a page, she raised her palm and began her ear-grinding incantations, much to Maverick’s repeated discomfort. A breeze began to blow, whistling past the branches yet without any signs of life with nothing to wave about on them, other than the cheshire’s hair. Little by little, noises of static could be heard, vibrant enough to be felt, coinciding with minuscule sparks forming in front of Derrota. They slowly grew on and on in intensity, till soon enough the ground began to move. A space anomaly, given away by the snow directly beneath it disappearing to Lord knew where, yet Derrota kept on her chant. Maverick saw the signs, the same ones he saw not minutes ago, watching intently till Derrota altered the space anomaly into that which would aid him: A time anomaly.
“Done.” She stood up, closing her book.
Without delay, Maverick marched forward.
No longer did he see the snow, though still a relative cold remained. Now around him lay the patches of green he had been so used to, those outside Wonderland in the lands he knew so well already. The path he stood on, the houses upon each side, the little rural village, even his own house right in front, it’s as if his task in Wonderland had ended, allowing him to return. And yet, so eerie a feeling asphyxiated him, of knowing it to be the village in a time alien to him, the time Rebecca had departed to her doom.
A place Derrota should’ve not known about, striking absolute suspicion in him. She seemed to know not only his village, but so too his specific house within it. Too many questions did he have for her, and still he knew he’d get no answers. Despite throwing a skeptical glance at her, she kept her gaze intently towards the door. However, only then did he notice her features gone: The horns, the wings, the tail.
“What for?” He asked, Derrota glancing his way.
“There’s hardly a need for anyone to see what I am here.”
“The unnatural hair and eye colour will get you labelled a dullahan regardless.”
Rather than words, in reply she snickered with a smile. Her smile then dissipated in time, both Derrota and Maverick staring at the door of the house. “Something’s up.”
“She was supposed to walk out already.”
His suspicions were erased, replaced in turn by the worry of what surprise he might come across like in the dead forest. He marched onward in haste, picturing Rebecca as a human only for the image of the cheshire to replace her. Grabbing the handle, he pushed to open it and marched inside, to find zero signs of life within as did Derrota upon following behind. For someone who had been preparing to depart, she was nowhere to be seen. Not a dusty corner, not a thing left out of place, all kept tidy and arranged too well for any normal day, a clear sign of someone wishing to depart for a long, long while. It was as if she had already departed, yet to ask Derrota would be redundant.
At least, till he arrived to the bedroom. A sign of life at last, yet not from someone readying her bag. Instead, of someone under a blanket on the bed, sleeping so peacefully contrary to what Maverick and Derrota knew they should have arrived to.
Paranoia settled in as a flurry of thoughts crossed his mind, none of which could be consider too cheerful. With quiet steps he made his way to the bed, blanket covering far too much to see underneath, even the person’s head from where he was, leaving him with more and more questions he silently asked himself. For a moment he paused upon reaching the bedside, focusing on dispelling his doubts to bring himself to act rather than to stay immobile in fear, and soon enough he raised his hand to the blanket to slowly pull aside.
Cat ears. His heart caved in, a beat leaving him feeling hollow as he kept on pulling the blanket aside, revealing the black and white color of the one who used to be his wife. Sleeping so peacefully, remaining asleep despite his actions, yet with all the traits of the cheshire he had seen, even down to the clothing. She was supposed to be a human departing to wonderland, at a time she had never even set foot there ever before, and yet here she was before him, as a monster she’d not even monsterize into for a long while. Somehow.
“Strange.” Remarked Derrota, arriving to Maverick’s side. However, Maverick paid her no mind, still with the blanket in his hand staring catatonic at the cat. Even as the shuffling of pages rang out in the otherwise silent room, he still focused her gaze on the one who slept. “I didn’t imagine this happening.”
“What’s going on?”
“Time ago- or in due time, really, Rebecca used her own misery over you having disappeared as a conduit to go back and meet you at the forest entrance in Wonderland. Time travel is a… fairly complex topic, but if we’re dealing with the same timeline, in order to appear at that time as a cheshire, she had to replace the Rebecca that spent so long without you and decided to depart. Could it be that she’s still following you here, further replacing the old Rebecca…?”
“What?!” He asked, snapping his eyes to her.
“It’s only a theory, pay it no mind. Or do so. Can’t really blame you for assuming the worst, it’s what I’d do too. That theory wouldn’t explain how she’d turn into a cheshire if the Rebecca that departed and got herself into said situation was replaced.”
“I… I don’t understand…”
“There are many things Flatlanders were not meant to understand.”
Clicking his tongue, he returned his eyes to Rebecca, pursing his lips with doubt flooding his mind.
“Take earlier.” He said. “Back to the time I departed–“
“I’d highly advise against it.”
“I trust you know the risk of her following you back, but you’d also end up causing the Maverick from back then go through the event of his wife turning into a cheshire out of the blue. Lord knows what manner of terror would strike that village if monsterization of that magnitude happened out of nowhere, what fear would hit Nostrum if they believed another situation like Old Variland started to occur, and worst yet after Victoria promised not to touch those of Nostrum who wished to remain on their side of the border. And that’s just what I can predict based on what I think will happen, for all we know things a hundred thousand times worse could occur. Maybe you’ll replace the old Maverick, maybe when you return to your proper time the old Maverick would have disappeared with unpredictable effects. Are you really willing to take that risk?”
Defeated, with a headache starting to rear its ugly head, he let out a sigh in agony.
“Then take me to the time you turned Rebecca into a cheshire. We’re going after her.”
“Into the hordes of afflicted hearts?” She asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Won’t a lilim be enough to keep them at bay?”
“You are asking too much of a twelve year old.”
The words left him frowning in absolute stupefaction. “You’re… twelve? I thought you were only child-like in appearance. Something the Sabbath would drool over.”
“Don’t speak of the Sabbath.” She answered, visibly irritated. “Those pedophile-enablers have been bothering me for a good while already.”
Silent for a second, she came to know Maverick would not back down from his request. Believing it wiser to not bash her head against the wall, she let out a loud exhalation through her nose in unamused acknowledgment.
“We’re gonna have to walk a fair distance away from here first.” She said, turning about and heading out the door, Maverick following suit. “I don’t want anyone accidentally wandering too close and getting curious as to what we’re doing.”
Once more the frozen wasteland greeted him anew, now with an urban landscape to welcome him rather than the dead forest of before. It had not been long enough for him to forget, still remembering the small colorful town he had found the spades in, now devoid of most of its color much like the visions he had. The snow, the sky, all gave it a distinct hue stripping it from its lively atmosphere and replacing it with the dead silence of the nonexistent wind, a dead town with not a spade to be seen.
But as they scanned the scenery around them, the two found no traces of Rebecca.
Movement caught his attention from his peripheral view, though quickly found it not to be Rebecca. Instead, it turned out to be a trumpart, a heart with deep circles under her eyes, staring wide-eyed as she halted in her tracks petrified upon their presence.
“…Maverick!” She shouted out loud, turning in panic to run the way she came.
“Shit.” He muttered, breaking to a mad spring in pursuit of the trumpart.
“Hell are you doing?!” Shouted Derrota, yet he did not listen, instead chased after the heart well past a corner.
However, upon turning, Maverick caught sight of two more hearts rushing in, making it three as the first one turned to charge back. Unsheathing his sword, he parried the spear of the first and hacked her appart into smoke, Derrota arriving in time to do the same to the second with her sword. To the last one remaining, he tackled and threw against the ground, immobilizing her, only for her to so too turn into smoke, leaving him against the ground gripping nothing.
“Question stands!” She said, rushing back the way the came from out of the alley, only for Maverick to arrive and see more and more hearts coming from inbetween the houses. Too many to fight against, a massive patrol much like that in his vision. Both silently agreed in action, immediately running the same way towards the town hall as more hearts flooded into the street, aiming for the building which doors lay wide open.
“Wanted to ask some questions! Never saw them turning into smoke at will!” He answered.
Upon crossing the door, Derrota waved her hand in force, pulling all manner of furniture in sight and slamming it all against the doors Maverick shut. A barricade, immediately pounded against by those who chased after them.
“Rebecca!” Shouted Maverick, taking a further step forward, yet not even his own echoing could he hear in return.
“The other instances didn’t have her as a human. This one may not have her at all, I’m afraid.”
“You’re telling me she’s gone?!”
A window breaking interrupted them both, reminding them of the inevitable breakthrough the hearts had made against Rebecca. In response, the two quickly took the same path Rebecca had taken, rushing to the staircase and running upwards.
“I can’t tell! If we’re in the same timeline, then chances are she has no business here, as she’d have already been a cheshire before even setting out!”
“What?! You’re telling me that now she’s been a monster for even longer?!”
“You’re asking me to explain something which would demand weeks to even figure out in just a few minutes, if we even have that long!”
“Then fuck it! She has to be here!”
Step after step, they soon arrived to the fateful floor. Turning the corner, they rushed into the hallway and rushed to the very same room he remembered Rebecca hoping for safety in, and yet, within they found nothing. The same thing Derrota did with the entrance, she did with the door, closing it and throwing anything not bolted to the ground against it. As Maverick stared in confusion to the empty space and the ruckus of the barricade eased down, the noisy steps of the trumparts stampeding in could be heard approaching.
And then, pounding against the door.
“Where to?” Asked Derrota.
He couldn’t answer, instead pursing his lips with a frown of irritation and anger growing in his expression. Doubt, hesitation, disbelief, agony, all as the trumparts attempted to tear the door down.
“It’s your call if you want to stay and reenact a miniature Acerrae,” she added, “but you don’t have the luxury of turning into a cheshire to poof away to safety.”
Clicking his tongnue, he sighed in a last ditch attempt to come up with something, noise of wood torn apart pressuring him a fair deal.
“…Take me to the mad hatter.”
“Of this time?”
“Then just a space anomaly will do.” She said, to plop down once more. “Get ready, I’ll time it to dissipate so that they don’t follow us.”
Opening the book already on the right page, she chanted anew. Though still discomforting, Maverick couldn’t help but glance at the barricade, wondering if the alien chanting would do anything to those outside. Suspicions correct, he noticed the onslaught easing down to an absolute standstill, yet it commenced anew with greater vigour and fury, a rampage to get through to them like starving, rabid wolves upon prey.
“Five seconds, go!” She exclaimed, jumping to her feet and rushing in. Unwilling to remain a second longer with those chasing after them, he followed suit with equal haste, jumping into the anomaly.
“Nyarlathotep messed with their minds differently, as a joke.” Said Derrota as the two approached the old house. “Well, joke… Original Chief God knows what her definition of joke is, if she has what we define as sense of humor at all. The mad hatter, the march hare, the dormice… It takes a look at them to wonder if the afflicted’s reaction was planned from the start, rather than Nyarlathotep merely throwing dice.”
The distinct sound of snow cushioning their steps changed to the creaking wood, setting foot onto the house’s porch. Other than the weather’s effects, nothing seemed to change about the building, still as weary as the last time Maverick had seen it, as if it was specifically maintained for such aesthetic. The front door lay wide open, and as they approached an insomniac dormouse ran out full speed past them, a frightening sight once just to turn into the reassurance of things not having changed for the worse, in Maverick’s mind.
The chilling cold subsided partly upon crossing the door, echoing of their steps starting to be heard within the relative silence. Within they found the mad hatter and the march hare, both still the same as before with the dark circles under their eyes enjoying tea and those strange fungi-like covered cookies.
“Ah, Maverick.” Greeted the mad hatter with pleasant surprise, march hare sharing the same emotion. “Fancy seeing you here again so early.”
“…Come again?” He said, both him and Derrota arriving to the table.
“The lilim wasn’t with him, though.” Said the march hare. “It’s been a long time, missie.”
“So, going down there again, I’m guessing?” Continued the mad hatter.
But Maverick stared in utter confusion. A confusiong the march hare and the mad hatter came to see, to then shift a rapid glance at each other.
“His armor is… in better condition.” Said the march hare.
“You’re right.” Added the mad hatter. “I have a hunch… Is it possible that you’re not the same Maverick that came here around months ago?”
Still with more questions than answers, Maverick turned his eyes to Derrota.
“The time difference between the Wonderland you arrived to and this one is of several years.” She said, confirming his fears.
“Where did he go?” He asked.
“Down the tunnels. He didn’t say why.” Answered the mad hatter. “From what the dormice saw, you’d only need to go straight, no strange turns. I take it you’re going after him, so do us a favor and tell him to come around more often, alright?”
Without delay, Maverick stepped off to the path he remembered, that which he had gotten out of with the spade. Derrota caught up and followed behind, keeping close as he made his way to the hallway, then to the basement, and though now multiple tunnel entrances existed, he took the one directly ahead, the one he remembered coming out of back then. With clarity obscured at an ever increasing pace the further they marched in, Derrota ignited a white flame on her palm to illuminate the way.
Labyrinthine paths led left and right, some even up and down, like an ant hive where dormice ran one way to the other in infrequent intervals. A headache to keep track on, had they not been hinted to the straightest path onward.
Little by little as distance grew between them and the house, the splits in the tunnel turned fewer and fewer. Like the transition from a megalopolis to the most remote of rural areas, it turned from a massive web of pathways to a single tunnel barely traversed, showing what little activity it had compared to those of before. Even the dormice’s sounds came to a dead silence, with a faint echo to even reach them.
The air turned thick. Difficult to breathe. Too little ventilation, no wind whatsoever, an oppressive atmosphere just like the darkness surrounding them. Each step forward led into the unknown, without clue as to what his past- or future- self would have wished to achieve. The difference from his visions had already left him lost in his entirety, not only not finding Rebecca, but also finding hints of himself, avoiding a headache only by refusing to imagine the implications after so great changes in time. The terror in his heart originated not from expecting awful things, but from not knowing just how awful it would be.
Derrota’s light gave away a silhouette in its farthest reach, making him stop as did she. Flickering in its reach, he knew it not to be a rock formation. It was something. Someone. With a few closer steps, the cavernous passage came to a dead end, the silhouette resting against the end to be revealed as two people rather than one, both in each other’s embrace. Silent, immobile, inactive, unreactive to the light approaching them.
Upon their features visible with clarity, Maverick halted in place, petrified in his entirety with eyes wide open. Derrota did not need to glance at Maverick to know his reaction, knowing what lied in front of them. Before him, Maverick recognized the armor, the clothing, the outfit, the hair, all of the two who embraced one another.
He saw himself, armor worn out, dented, torn, aged, resting against the wall with so peaceful a look despite what gruelling a series of events had to cause his physique to look so beaten. Asleep, yet almost as if dead, with his arms wrapped around a woman he knew all too well already: Rebecca, yet in her human form, looking just as beaten and dirty, sleeping with the same apparent lack of life.
And worst of all, he saw the signs of affliction. The dark circles under the eyes, on both of them.
He could not say a word. He could not move a muscle. What he saw in front of him, he could not understand, only seeing it as a vivid image of his fears turned as true as they’d get. His body refused to move, his throat refused to speak, only his fingers twitched in aberrant disbelief. His jaw opened, but words would not come out. His heart had begun beating enough to feel like it’d burst out of his chest. A living nightmare, it felt like.
“…Get me out of here.” He finally spoke, almost in a whisper.
Without a word, Derrota once more calmly sat down and began her incantation. No longer did the eldritch language bother him, the nails-upon-chalkboard pronunciations that once plagued him, yet could hardly bring himself to focus enough to wonder in such situation. Did he get used to them? Was he nearing the state of affliction? Was the sight in front so disturbing, that the incantation felt like a soothing lullaby instead? If he even cared, he’d wish to never know.
From nothing, to a space anomaly; from a space anomaly, to a time anomaly. With her incantation finished, she stood up and waited in silence. Still shaken to the core, Maverick marched to the bubble onto to halt at the last step, turning his head to himself and his wife, those who had gone through what he feared the most. It felt like an omen, a vision of not what ‘could’ be, but what ‘will’ be, a darker future than he would have ever imagined before Nyarlathotep had shown herself. Exhaling out loud through his nose, he mustered his mental fortitude and stepped into the bubble, disappearing without the two to wake up by the noise. Derrota then approached the bubble, stopping like Maverick had done to look at the two, before following suit behind him.
Life. Activity. Happy chatter and smiles on those who passed by in the lively city. Succubi, weresheep, holstaurs, incubi, all manners of people crowding the streets moving one way to the other. A contrasting sight turning almost saccharine to Maverick’s eyes, used too much to the desolation and pain of not minutes ago. Though his muscles cherished the soothing inactivity of merely sitting on a bench with Derrota, his ears began to ache at the sudden cacophony of voices, of chit-chat, of steps and carts upon the colorful street.
And not a trumpart to be seen. Not a cheshire. Not a mad hatter, not a march hare, nor an insomniac hyperactive dormouse. It didn’t look like Wonderland, nor did it feel as cold. A warm autumn day, if the trees and weather were anything to go by. Rather, it felt as if he knew the place; the name remained at the tip of his tongue, having been to it at least once, yet still not enough to remember. Then, he came to recognize it, despite so many differences still existing. It seemed too big, too crowded, too developped compared to what he remembered, however.
“Kleinsborough…?” He asked.
Derrota did not answer, though very well he knew that she’d have said no had he been wrong.
“From your time, it has. It used to be some nameless town back in the day, before the war with Nostrum. After Nyarlathotep left, it still remained the town closest to Nostrum, and Makillae remained the city closest to Variland. It was after your time, but once relations improved, Vandire and Victoria took advantage of it and turned Makillae and Kleinsborough into massive trading hubs. A funnel, if you will. Whatever the north wanted from the south, and whatever the south wanted from the north, travelled the road between both. Didn’t take long before the nations bordering Nostrum and Variland noticed so great an opportunity and joined in, and soon enough a great many people found their business in it.”
Wonder befell him, if only out of curiosity. A supersized undertaking, seeing before him a street wider than any he had seen, knowing Nostrum had not needed such gargantuan level of infrastructure, and knowing Variland to have been the same from what he had seen. His eyes gazed in all directions, finding an infinity of distractions and displays of wealth, of merchants and cargo moved one way to another, of stands displaying their glinting jewelry and all manner of items he could not decipher, all as captivating to the eye as fresh baked bread would captivate the nose of a starving man. His eyes then caught a detail at that moment, at the southern part of the street; a group of succubi kneeling in a circle by a cart with its cargo covered in cloth, with a bright magical sigil pulsating beneath it.
“What are they doing?” He asked. In response, Derrota looked at him before following his eyes, to find the same cart.
“Looks like it’ll be taken further south.” She said. “Those succubi are getting rid of the demonic energy in whatever’s in there. Shouldn’t be too surprising; the moment the slightest hint of demonic energy gets through is the moment the trade route is shut down for good and this place turns into a nameless town again. Victoria’s been… dedicated to prevent it. as you might imagine.”
Silent, he kept on staring intently till the succubi finished and stood up. The cart then departed south, joining four others as they marched as a caravan to their destination.
“Why have you taken me out of Wonderland?” He asked in monotony.
“There is something you have to see for yourself.”
“The reason why this place will turn into a bloodbath soon, and the reason why I have been searching for you.”