That's what's happening to Wonderland. It's dying. Sacrifices, the only thing that had kept everything in Wonderland colorful and vibrant and alive had been pretty scarce. And by scarce I mean there has been absolutely none for the past year. The Queen of Hearts is none too happy about that and, honestly, I can understand why. I mean, I'd be pretty irritable too if my kingdom was disintegrating, taking me along with it.
Beside one other person in Wonderland who I can't stand enough to even say his name, I'm the only person -well, if you consider someone with a human body but with tall, gangly, rabbit ears and a little cotton tail a person- who can cross over to The Outside. It is my duty to retrieve any and all humans that I can so that the Queen can survive by eating their hearts to keep herself and Wonderland alive. The only reason she doesn't just eat the hearts of those in Wonderland is because our hearts don't give her whatever she needs to stay alive.
Well, why did you think she was called the Queen of 'Hearts'?
The Queen isn't a terrible person, don't get me wrong there. She's usually very kind to her subjects and very beautiful. Like, 'drop dead gorgeous' beautiful. I used to have a crush on her about twelve years back, about the time I was seven, but I gave up on that when I found out that she had been twenty-four for over five-hundred years. People in Wonderland have the ability to stop their aging whenever they wish. I hadn't stopped mine yet, but nineteen seems to be a good age to me; I just might decide to stay this age.
That is, if I'm not executed first.
This is my last chance to bring back a sacrifice for the Queen. Not having a 'life giving' meal in over a year has made her a bit cranky, and she made it quite clear when I was summoned that if I didn't return with someone then I better not return at all.
She acts as if it's my fault; like I'm not trying my very best. This lack of sacrifices has had a toll on me too though. I really do like the field of rainbow flowers that grows by my house and it lifts my spirits whenever I'm feeling particularly depressed. Now, staring out at the wilting flowers as their color is sapped out only worsens my downheartedness.
But anyway, it's not as if I can just walk up to any old stranger and be like, "Hey, you look like a sad fellow, why don't you come join me in Wonderland where everything looks like it's been soaked with a bucketful of rainbows and most of the people have animal like characteristics? It's sure to brighten your day. That is, until the Queen will have you for dinner. Literally." That most likely wouldn't reel in anyone. It would probably only succeed in making me look completely bonkers.
There's also the little detail that rabbits can't really talk.
You see, that's the catch. I have no idea why, but I can't stay in my human form Outside. I don't know what it is, some annoying principle out there or something, all I know is that it's really irritating. So all I have to work with is being an adorable little bunny rabbit hippity hopping around, hopefully charming any little kids in the vicinity to try and catch me and ultimately climbing into the hollow tree that leads to Wonderland. Also, the person needs to be a child, or a child at heart, to even be able to see me or the tree hole. So, yeah, not the simplest of jobs.
As I headed through the hole in the hollow oak tree, already shifting forms, staring out into the field empty of any breathing being I could see, I can't help feeling that I should just kiss my head goodbye now.
It was when I had just about given up on being able to return to Wonderland at all that I saw her. Or more accurately, she saw me.
I almost missed her. She was bathing in the sunlight that was pouring down on the sea of daffodils she lay in, and I would've hopped right by her if she hadn't bolted up.
She was simply gorgeous. The only one who could rival her beauty was the Queen, and even then, they were two completely different types of beauty. The Queen was a stunning beauty with sensational curves that could make any guy drool and throw themselves at her feet. No one ever tried to make their move on her though. It wasn't a secret that she could easily snap your wrist if it ventured too close to her chest, although she preferred to have her guards deal with any fool idiotic enough to try.
Everything about this girl screamed delicate. She had a look of fragility that brought up some deep buried instinct to protect. Her features were soft, not a wrinkle in sight to prove she ever worried about anything. Her hair was like long, golden silk, cascading across her shoulders and down her back, flowing with the wind. Her eyes shone a bright, clear sky blue, wide with innocence. If I couldn't see that she was tall and slender with two fairly noticeable curves under her dress- the same blue as her eyes- then the look of innocence in her eyes would have me convinced that she was still a child. But really looking at her, I could see that she was actually closer to my age, maybe a year or two younger.
And in that moment that we took in each other's presence, all that was running through my mind was 'No. Not her.' I have no idea why this thought even crosses my mind. Never, not once in my entire six years of having this job have I ever felt any emotion as strong as this. Of course I've felt remorse for leading children to their certain demise, but after a while, I successfully built up a concrete wall around my heart to block out any self-loathing that might lead me to insanity. So why was that wall crumbling down now at the sight of this innocent young woman? I can't even explain it properly, it just can't be her.
And before I even know what I'm doing, my little white paws are scampering away as quickly as they can, all the while my mind reeling and screaming, 'stayawaystayawaystayaway'. The daffodils reach up and tickle my nose as I glide over them and I hold back a sneeze, shooting through the portal that led to my dying home.
As I grow taller and my white fur recedes from my body, leaving only a shoulder length amount on my head, I start running on two legs. I'm still frantic, thinking 'What the Hell just happened?'
My sprints melt into trots as I gasp for the breath I lost while panicking. I have no idea is wrong with me or why I completely panicked at the thought of leading her here. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have jumped at the opportunity to save my hide and bring back a decent meal for the Queen. I cringe as the thought passes through my head, not liking the idea of that beautiful cream colored face lying unnaturally pale, unblinking, never to see again. I clutch my chest, feeling a weird searing pain in my heart that I figure to be rubble from the demolished wall scraping up against it, reminding me of all the people I've led to their death. Mostly children. Oh God, the children. They probably had friends and families and pets and goals and dreams and they'll never realize them now and it's my fault, all my fault, myfaultmyfaultmyfault.
Oh man, how I wish I could build my wall back up, but the damage has already been done. All those years of ignoring my guilt are crashing down on my heart and conscious now.
At least I can take comfort in the fact that I didn't bring her here.
No sooner did the thought cross my mind when I heard a soft voice behind me, sweet as sugar cane.
"Um, excuse me?"
My heart stops. 'Oh God, no.' I was sure I had lost her in the maze of trees near the meadow. I'm a rabbit for God's sake! I should've been able to outrun her! All I can feel as I circle slowly around to face her is revulsion at myself. The look of complete innocence on her face makes it even worse. But, oddly enough, she doesn't seem at all surprised. Usually, people would be rendered speechless when they first make it to Wonderland, what with all the strangely colored foliage and half human- half animal people walking around. From what I've seen of Outside, their world is nothing like our own; very plain, very dull. I wouldn't be able to stand it.
She speaks before I have collected my thoughts enough to form them into a comprehensible sentence. "You're Oliver aren't you?" All I can register is that her words come out like the tinkling of bells, a beautiful, musical sound. Then I realize that she knows my name. Well now, how do you explain that?
There are a truckload of thoughts swarming around angrily in my head, but I can only force out the words "How do you know my name?"
She smiles shyly and her cheeks flush a rosy shade, almost giving me a heart attack from the sheer adorableness she radiates. "You were in my dream." She glances around at the scenery; taking everything in. "So was this place. In my dream there was a rabbit who led me here, and then I watched the rabbit change into you. That's why I was in the field today. I wanted to find you and this place. I hope I'm not intruding."
I want to scream at her, not in anger at her but in fear for her, to leave, to never come back; to crawl back through the hole in that cursed tree back to wherever her home is and to completely forget about me and Wonderland. I want her to keep her innocence, her safety, her life.
But I don't have the chance to. Because someone else answers for me.
"Of course you're not intruding," a gruff voice responds, giving her the illusion of security and me the all too real feeling of dread. It's one of the Queens royal guards. "The Queen will be delighted to hear we have a visitor." While talking to her, his face is the picture of kindness, but when he addresses me his features shift to something that can only be referred to as indifference. "The Queen expects you and our lovely guest to be in the castle courtyard within at least thirty minutes. Don't be late." He flashes one last smile at the girl then disappears down the trail that leads to the Queens castle.
Thirty minutes. Only thirty minutes. She has only thirty minutes to live. There's not even the chance for her to run away now; there will certainly be guards everywhere, watching our every step to make sure she doesn't leave Wonderland. Whenever I brought back any other sacrifice I had at least an hour to give them the time of their lives before their undeniable end. But the Queen isn't waiting this time, and this blonde haired angel has only thirty minutes to live. And she doesn't even know it.
"What else happened in your dream?" I manage to choke out over my feeling of anguish.
"Well, nothing really," she replied. "I only make it to the part where I meet you. Then I wake up." She shrugs. "But you were a lot happier in my dream. Now you seem kind of upset." Her lips pucker down and her eyebrows tuck in. "Do you really not want me here?"
The pure sadness she expresses on her face almost makes my heart break. In that moment, I make it my goal to make sure she has the absolute best thirty minutes of her life; or I'll die trying.
"Of course not!" I exclaim, plastering on a brilliant smile. "Just one thing: It seems you already know my name, but I haven't had the joy of learning yours. That hardly seems fair." I force out a little chuckle although I'd rather be screaming.
Her face instantly brightened and she chirped out 'Alice'.
"Well Alice, how about I give you the grand tour of Wonderland?" She smiles, revealing glittery white teeth, exclaiming her excitement.
We spend the next fifteen minutes touring Wonderland and chatting away happily, me showing her all the best places, her oohing at everything in sight. We have a quick tea session with Clark, the tea merchant, but I cut that short, knowing how he can change from cool and collected to insane in just a moment, and I've noticed he's lost his hat again, which will surely set him off soon enough. After that, we visit the rainbow meadow by my house. Even dulling, it still looks remarkable, the colors swirling together in amazing patterns. I can't help but notice that she favors this place over any of the others we visited, just like me.
But time moves too quickly when you're dreading something. According to my pocket watch, in what seems like no time we have only ten minutes left until the Queen expects us, so we start heading back through the woods towards the castle.
Then the next worst possible thing to happen other than my current situation with Alice and the Queen happens. We run into that damn Cheshire cat, Lance.
We're only about five minutes away from the courtyard by now, when he drops down from a tree, landing nimbly like only a cat could in front of us.
His ears and tail twitch erratically, intrigued by my companion. I'm disgusted just looking at him but I know what Alice sees; an astonishingly handsome man with extraordinary lavender colored, well, everything. Practically everything on him is a purple hue; his eyes, his hair, even his clothes are purple. All I see is an overly arrogant jerk.
"Well hello there," he purrs at Alice, completely ignoring me. "Now who is this? I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting such a charming young lady." He extends his hand to her and she blushes, still startled from his unexpected appearance. She recovers quickly enough though and takes it and murmurs her name. He turns her hand over and bends down to kiss it, changing her cheeks from a rosy pink to a deep scarlet red. That only succeeds in making me want to punch him in the face. With a brick.
"Well Alice, it's lovely to meet you. Why don't I give you a tour? Wonderland is a very wonderful place, as the name suggests." He smiles teasingly at her, but before she can get a word in, I butt in.
"I'm sorry," I say, not sounding the least bit remorseful, "But she's already been given the tour. And we were just on our way to go see the Queen if you don't mind."
He turns lazily to me as if he just took notice of my presence. But I can see now the hard look in his eyes, his absolute hatred for me as I mention the Queen. Because he knows that Alice is going to die. And that's the reason he hates me. Because he knows it's my fault all of those children have died. He puts me on the same level as the Queen, even though she's the one who does the actual eating of the heart. I shudder at the phrase. What once was a normal thought to me now makes me quake in revulsion. It's a wonder what the loss of one measly wall around the heart can do.
"Now if you'll excuse us." I grab her hand and start to tug her along towards the castle and away from this menace, but he blocks my path.
Addressing Alice, he says, "Down the path there is a wonderful patch of Everblosom. It's a magnificent plant that's forever changing colors; why don't you go check it out? You don't have that in your world, do you?" She shakes her head, a little quizzically, but then scampers off to go examine the plant.
Once she's out of earshot, I'm taken off guard when Lance shoves me into a tree. The air whooshes out of my lungs as his face, only a few moments ago charming and suave, morphs into a ferocious snarl. "You monster. I can't stand you, you know that?" he whispers menacingly, his voice leaking hatred.
I shove him back, changing my own features to look tough and frightening. "Yes, I do know that. And I don't care. What the Hell am I supposed to do, huh? Without me doing my job, we'd all be dead, and that includes you."
"And you think our lives are any more important than hers? Than any of theirs?"
I shove past him, not wanting to think of any of what he's saying. I toss back over my shoulder, "Well if it bugs you so damn much, why don't you stop complaining and finally do something about it?" Before he has time to respond, I'm down the road, dragging Alice away from the flickering flowers.
As we enter the courtyard, the anger I felt at Lance dissolves into dismay. The Queen is out, looking lovely as ever, with only her unnatural paleness to indicate she had been sick at all. Surrounding her are at least twenty-five guards, which is most of her brigade, all doused in the royal red from head to toe. They each hold a spear with a heart on the end, the bottom of the heart being the pointy part.
"Well, am I ever glad you could make it my dear Oliver." she croons, walking up to meet us. "And I see you've brought a guest. How delightful. May I ask your name Dearie?"
Giving her trademark shy smile, she says, "My name's Alice. It's very nice to meet you your majesty," and does a little curtsy.
"Oh how sweet you are. The pleasure is all mine. But look at you, skinny as a twig. You're looking famished. I think it's about time we had something to eat. I'm very much looking forward to having you for dinner." The Queen smiles, a dazzling, approachable smile that no one can resist. And why would she? Why would the thought even occur to her that she was the dinner?
Alice smiled back, her own sweet, trusting smile, and started walking towards the Queen, who had already turned and started back towards the castle, her guards following her. I could feel the panic rising in my throat, choking me, and my hand rose to snatch at her wrist, having a mind of its own. If I could just grab her-
And then the courtyard exploded in a haze of smoke.
I was disoriented for only a moment until I registered the blur of purple streaking by me toward Alice.
Lance. He was finally doing something.
A part of me was furious at him for ruining and interrupting my plan to rescue her, but then I thought, 'What plan?'
I had no idea where he got the smoke bomb, maybe from the Caterpillar who typically just lazes around puffing out an endless stream of smoke, but at the moment I could hardly care. It was an amazing advantage for us. The royal guards couldn't see three feet in front of themselves, whereas Lance and I, basically being animals, had better eyesight. And as they were stumbling around, tripping over each other and yelling in confusion, hopefully stabbing each other with their spears, Lance had already snatched Alice and was making a break for it.
He was quick, but he had Alice to drag behind him, slowing him down, so I had no trouble catching up with them. While good for me at the moment, it also meant neither would the guards, and that was very bad.
"Hurry it up! They'll catch up with us in no time if we stay at this pace!"
Noticing me for the first time, Lance glares at me, catching me dead in the eye. "What are you doing here? Why don't you head on back to your precious Queen and-"
"Shut it Lance." I snap back. "I know I've made a lot of mistakes in my life and I know you can't stand me because of them, but I honestly didn't want her to come here. I only want to help, and I don't need your permission for that." I can't help but give a little smirk when I realize he has nothing snappy to say back.
The smirk is wiped off quickly enough though when a sharp twang reverberates off a nearby tree as an arrow is lodged into its bark.
"What's going on?!" Alice yells frightened and out of breath, lagging considerably. If she wasn't being dragged along by Lance, she wouldn't have even made it this far.
"I'll explain later," I say, trying my best to sound calm for her sake.
She looks as if she's about to demand answers, but another twang shuts her up. We run without taking a break, crashing through the forest, tiredly dragging long, deep breaths into our burning lungs.
After five straight minutes of sprinting, Alice finally digs her heels into the soft forest floor and refuses to budge another inch unless someone explains the situation.
I feel like we've done it, we've actually done it. I can't hear any of the crashing behind us anymore that signals they were continuing pursuit, so I'm pretty sure we can rest, if only for a minute. But our main goal is to get to the hollow tree. From there on, we'll be home free. Lance and I might have to stay animals forever, but at least Alice will be safe.
Dragging in another breath of burning air, I gently squeeze Alice's shoulder, not really knowing what to do in this kind of situation, so I just blurt it out. "The Queen is trying to kill you Alice." Lance glares at my lack of tactfulness and continues on in a more gentle way.
"Sweetie, the Queen isn't as nice as you may think. I won't give you the gory details, but she needs you to be dead in order for herself to continue living. And I don't want that to happen."
"Neither do I." I chime in, but he brushes the comment aside and plows forward, still a bit breathless.
"So our main goal right now is to get you out of here. Then you'll be safe." He smiles charmingly at her, trying to reassure her.
"But what about you guys?" She asks, obviously not reassured all that much by the frantic look in her eyes.
I was just about to answer her when my shoulder exploded.
I'm such an idiot. I should've remembered the Queens griffon. Of course she would be smart enough to use him to reach us by air. And of course she would have no regrets about using her arrows to take out Lance and me.
The pain is excruciating as I fall to the ground, and in spite of myself I let out a scream of agony. I hear Alice shriek beside me, and all I can think is run. 'If you run, they won't be able to catch you. They only got me because I was standing still and they had the element of surprise. But you can still get away.' But, beside myself in pain, all I can get out is "run".
But she doesn't listen, stubborn little thing. She collapses to the ground next to me and yells up at Lance, "Help me get him up! Help me get him up!" while frantically pulling her hands back and forth as if to grab me, but not knowing if that was a good idea or not.
I catch Lance's eye and I don't see the usual hate or disgust, but oddly enough, respect. Because he knows I don't want him to save me. He stands there in silent admiration as she screams up at him. But when I manage to croak out her name, she instantly falls silent. I have only a minute to say this before the Queen can get a clear shot between the trees, so I make it fast. "Alice, I'll be fine. The Queen won't kill me; she can't. I'm the only one who can get Outside besides Lance, and if you get going, he won't even be here for her to make him. So, please, I need you to leave."
Somewhere in the middle of all the chaos raging in my mind, I realize that she has started crying. I don't like the look of sadness on her face; it doesn't suit her. I'd much rather her be smiling.
"But-" She goes to argue with me, but I cut her off with a painful 'please'. She gets up still sobbing, and I'm almost flattered that this girl I met not an hour ago is so saddened by my pain. "Promise you'll be alright?" She asks, the tears still streaking down her face.
"Promise." I utter in the most confident tone I can muster, and it kills me because I know I'm just flat out lying. As they start to run away, I whisper to the air, "Take care of her." Being a cat, I know Lance will hear me. And if he doesn't get her out safely, I
swear I'll haunt the bastard for the rest of his life.
I know the Queen will kill me if I don't die before she gets to me. Rage can make a person do insane things, like kill the only hope you have of surviving. In a way, I'm almost glad to die. At least that way I'm taking the whole damn place with me. Without me, there are no sacrifices, and no sacrifices means bye bye Wonderland.
I close my eyes and I'm back in the field of daffodils where I met her, and there she is, lying in the flowers, enchantingly illuminated by the sun. But this time, I'm a regular human; no long rabbit ears, no fluffy cotton tail, just human. And instead of leading her to Wonderland, I just lie down beside her in the grass and flowers and grab her hand. The warm breeze floats over us, swirling the sun's warm rays around us. I close my eyes and it carries us along with it. I float along without a care in the world, spinning through the air like a leaf, with nothing to hold on to but her. But I suddenly realize I can't take her with me. She's not ready for it, I guess, wherever I'm going. Maybe it's our own Wonderland; maybe that's the reason she can't come. I've got to prepare it for her. I don't want to release her, but I know I have to. I give her hand one last squeeze, savoring and memorizing its shape, and then-
I let go.