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A note from Fox-Trot-9

Written on 3/31/19. Spring Season, March 2019 edition.


Warning(s): sexual content; traumatizing content; violent content.

She is coming, my own, my sweet;
Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

—Alfred Tennyson,
Maud,
“Come to the Garden, Maud”


1


The lights overhead flickered on and off at the end of the hallway just before the turn around the next corner, flooding the premises with a darkness more than night and turning it into a void that drummed to a beating heart. And in that beating void, there appeared the hazy figure of Rancaster in wisps of fog emanating from his feet, returning him to the threshold of Katherine’s extra private boudoir after he had informed Alice of intruders in this house.

He pushed open the door and winced, still feeling the residual sting of Auna Wenger’s gunshot in the center of his chest. The bloodstains had dried into a dark (almost black) residue over his clothes that made him more proud of Auna going off script and throwing caution to the wind.

“You’ve played your part well, bambina,” he said and stomped his foot onto the floor and dispelled the haze from the doorway before entering.

Like before, he ignored the phalluses and the television and DVDs and DVD player and the set of books with titles such as Story of O and Lolita and Ada, among others, but paused at the translation of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette that he had placed in between the other volumes on the shelf.

He took it out and noticed blood (his own blood) caked over a small ragged hole punched through the front cover and deforming the back cover. So he flipped to the front cover, where he found the seal of his sleeper curse missing and Katherine’s name obscured in blood. Then he flipped the back cover and noticed more dried blood caked against it, till he saw a full metal jacket slug slip out and fall to the floor.

He crouched and picked up the slug in his hand, feeling Auna Wenger’s waning presence still imparted on it. Even on the verge of death on the stairs, Auna had managed the impossible, shooting through the shadowy veil of Rancaster’s astral presence and nailing a perfect shot on the book he had used to put Katherine Hearn to sleep.

He whistled at this feat, a feat rivaling Kendra’s shot through his reflection spell over the lake and into the hallway through one of Katherine’s mirrors, and said, “Were you planning on defying me, bambina? You’re turning out far more interesting than I thought.”

He then spied the residual afterglow of Celia’s seal inscribed with red roses by the bed that Kendra had moved. So he got up and crouched and placed two fingers on the seal and closed his eyes, looking through his mind’s eye at the refracted images of Colbie’s spell. Through that spell, he saw Colbie struggling to split off a simulated replica of Katherine’s ballroom from the real thing, engulfing several masqueraders at random, the jerky movements of her spell grinding the edges of her pocket dimension ragged and sharp as if she was working a spell far beyond her experience.

Entering now would be painful, even for Rancaster, so he bided his time and waited for her spell to stabilize just enough, so he could jump in through the seals.


2


When the applause died down after Alice’s speech, all the chandelier lights blinked in and out overhead, casting the whole ballroom in flickering light and panicking the masqueraders into a frenzy of complaints and questions and jibber-jabber. And in the split-second flashes of darkness and light, Alice saw the crowd gridlocked like a sea of bodies bottlenecked against rows of concrete roadblocks from the blue section all the way to the white section and into the—

That’s when she saw a young woman standing behind a Gatling gun, manifesting a gun in her hand and aiming towards the ceiling.

And that’s when she realized and yelled, “Everyone, stay—”

The report of three shots echoed down the ballroom, and the crowd screamed and lurched towards Alice in a crush of panic and haste, a tsunami of bodies heading her way. Alice screamed for them to stop and back up, but the collective mob was heedless of her words and urged forward towards the double doors and pressed her up against the roadblock set against the double doors, crushing her. The tsunami of panicked masqueraders suffocated her with every breath she took as she screamed for them to stop and back up, but to no avail.

Alice had fallen into a trap, and when she cast her eyes afar towards the other side of the ballroom, she spied three other girls behind a set of roadblocks throwing flash bangs after the retreating crowd.

Three explosions resounded through the ballroom, filling the entire space with more screams and sending another wave of bodies crushing up against her. Amidst the unrelenting crush, she began spitting up blood as she gritted her teeth in fury, for she recognized one of the bomb throwers.

She was the same incognito Alice had fought in this ballroom, and something within her burned and raged like the torment of Hell, like the acid of spite, like a score left unsettled between two bitter opponents.

Turning from that saboteur, her eyes blazed red like a basilisk’s against the suffocating crush of a panicked mob, as she fought to hold in her breath, lest her lungs collapse in her rib cage. She fought to stay awake, to ward off the slow-wave sleep of unconsciousness from desynchronizing her spirit from her astral body before the threads of her conscious mind could twine into a silver chord. Yet in her mind, she thought of Auna and the Red and White Queens and Rancaster in repeating succession, till a pattern emerged on the edge of her awareness, something just beyond her astral recall.

It was a mental block in her memory, one that lurked behind the atrocities done to her at the hands of Auna’s beast of a father, one that capered on the tip of her tongue and on the edges of her mind, one that . . . What, exactly? She couldn’t tell what it was, but only knew there was an absence somewhere. But where?

Before she could figure it out, the desynchronization process began, and everything stopped for her as if frozen in time, like the untethered mind left in a limbo of unanswered questions. If Auna was but a girl-character, as Alice believed her to be, and if Alice herself was the true persona, as she believed herself to be, then what had caused her to create Auna in the first place? On top of that, as she remembered meeting Celia Hearn on the landing, she wondered: why did she hold such animosity towards the Hearn family? But most important of all, as she remembered leaving Auna sobbing on the other side of the Looking-Glass mirror, she also wondered: how did Alice Liddell die in the first place?


3


On the other side of the blockaded double doors, the Red and White Queens were banging against the double doors, both listening to the chaos of panicked voices building inside. Yet as the banging of their fists echoed against the doors like drums, shimmering the barrier that Colbie had set up, the Red Queen couldn’t take it anymore.

She backed off and cursed and said, “Stop wasting your breath. There’s no way we can get in.”

Her white counterpart turned and glared at her, saying, “You might’ve abandoned Alice, but I won’t!”

“I didn’t say that!” the Red Queen said. “But we have to think this through, or else we won’t be much help to her.”

The White Queen huffed and spat, “I’d rather wait for Rancaster than wait for you!”

“If you haven’t noticed,” she said, “Rancaster’s not here!” And she stretched out her hand and manifested her knife there, grasping it and edging the tip of her blade in the sliver of gap between both doors and pushed it home, forcing a shimmer of light running up towards the top of the door jamb above her head. “Come on. Don’t just stand there. Help me!”

So the White Queen did the same and dug her knife into the gap and strengthened the sliver of light into a noticeable crack, gritting her teeth and locking her knees and raising herself on the balls of her feet. She turned to her uppity double and said, “I hope you know what you’re doing!”

“Shut up and keep pushing,” she said, and both girls kept forcing their way past the threshold, adding their combined strength to the crowd crush of panicked masqueraders pressing Alice against them on the other side, when anomalous memories flashed through their minds. These memories, hazy fragments in themselves, showed a man neither girl recognized spilling himself into Alice as she screamed in agony, . . . then switched to Aaron Rancaster driving a stake through her chest and completing his blood spell, . . . then switched to him reflecting Alice’s defiled corpse against a mirror, . . . and then switched to him reaching into the mirror and pulling out a copy of Alice from the reflection.

Both girls sucked in breath and backed away from the door, just as their minds began desynchronizing and merging insensibly with Alice’s on the other side, as Auna’s voice echoed in the back of their minds and called out to them with the names she had given them when she was but a child and they were but figments of her imagination.

“Auna!” both queens said and grabbed each other’s hands and looked at each other, both girls seeing Auna and Alice reflected in their own faces.

So the Red Queen said, “Remember who you are! Remember your name, and you won’t get lost! What’s your name?”

“Shiro . . . Shiromi,” the White Queen said. “What’s yours?”

“Akami,” the Red Queen said. “Shiromi, look at me. As long as we remember who we are, we won’t get lost. What’s your name?”

“Shi . . . Shi . . .” The White Queen struggled. “I . . . I can’t remember! What’s my name? Tell me what my name is!”

“It’s Shi . . . Shi . . . Ugh, damn it,” the Red Queen said, tears trailing down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I can’t . . . I don’t even know what my name is. I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I—”

And before the Red Queen could finish her sentence, before the White Queen had another chance to speak, they both collapsed to the floor as two shells of their astral selves, while their minds fell into the slow-wave sleep of oblivion. Thus, the Red and White Queens became enslaved to Alice’s will, rousing them to their feet like zombies from the dead. So they picked themselves up and manifested knives in their hands and passed through the double doors into the fray.


4


With the wave of masqueraders converging towards the other end of the ballroom, Colbie imagined the space splitting apart in her mind. The simulated ballroom and Katherine’s ballroom refracted into two separate spaces again, taking the masqueraders with her into the simulation, but got snagged on the anchor that was Alice raging against the crush of bodies pressing against her to get to the doors. Yet even in the crush of a panicked mob, in the midst of their collective screams and bodily weight, Alice somehow delayed Colbie’s spell, till Colbie looked to the opposite end of the ballroom and froze.

The blurs of the Red and White Queens slipped through the bodies of the panicked mob like phantoms through a forest and sprinted up towards her with knives in their hands.

Both converged on either side of Colbie before she could blink, yet they passed her by as if she wasn’t there. She heard the screams of her friends, the reports of gunfire and the clang of blades echoing behind her.

She turned around, manifesting her dagger in her hand, but her wrist got caught in a strong grip, and before she knew it, she felt a roundhouse kick to her solar plexus, knocking the breath out of her and bowling her over into a shoulder toss. She few through the space time of falling dreams, falling and falling and falling—


5


Till she woke up with a jolt to her spine and shook the simulated ballroom of Connie’s place. Colbie propped herself up on her elbows and found herself in Connie’s place in the company of the masqueraders from the ballroom. A number of them, about an eighth of their number were lying incapacitated on the floor, while a few of them checked on them. The rest still wielded bladed weapons in their hands, glaring and cursing at Colbie (“Seize her!”), and charged en masse.

Colbie struggled to her feet, but got restrained under a mass of arms and grasping hands and a forest of blades poised over her chest and stomach.

“Stand down,” Alice said.

At first, the masqueraders didn’t move, looking to one another as though in confusion.

“I said, stand down, you idiots!” Alice yelled, and the masqueraders back off from Colbie, allowing her to sit up and view the drama before her, but none of them sheathed their blades—only stood at attention before Alice. “I’m starting to wonder if you’re all worthy of the house of Rancaster,” she said, stalking up to one masquerader in particular. “If he were here right now, he’d executed you at once!”

“But we were caught off guard, my Lady,” he said, and when she looked closer at the man, she recognized the fidgety masked doorman she had met at the entrance of the ballroom earlier tonight. “None of us expected an infiltration like this.”

And the crowd of his companions agreed with another yea of confirmation, but this was no democracy.

Alice laid down the law and said, “But you’re the doorman, Mr. Foster,” and the man froze at the mention of his alias. “As such, you hold the sole responsibility of letting uninvited guests into these premises!”

“My Lady, I’m sorry for my incompetence,” he said, kneeling down to her in submission, “but I can assure you—”

“Not another word, traitor,” Alice said, then looked around at his compatriots. “As for the rest of you, you’ve disgraced yourselves! You’ve pledged your loyalty to me and Lord Rancaster, but you ran at the first hint of danger! What have you to say for yourselves?”

Now the masqueraders stood in the hush of judgement from their Queen Alice, none of them daring a word.

“Nothing? No word to defend your actions?” Alice said. “Then I’ll have Rancaster execute you all by daybreak.”

Another masquerader protested and said, “Then tell us how we may redeem ourselves, and we will, my Lady! By God, we will!”

“Then stand down, all of you, you miserable wretches,” Alice said, and the mass of parting bodies backed away from her and Colbie, forming a circle around them, and a bloodied and battered Alice approached Colbie and reached out her hand and pulled her up to her feet. “This is checkmate, Prince Prospero. Now tell me your name.”

Now both girls were face to face, and Colbie for the first time looked into the face of her formidable foe and said, “You haven’t tagged me yet,” then looked around at the perimeter of masqueraders encircling them. “And this isn’t a fair fight.”

So Alice looked into Colbie’s eyes and said, “You have such beautiful eyes,” and manifested her knife over Colbie’s face and raised the tip of her blade to her cheek. “But all’s fair in love and war,” and she drew blood.

Colbie winced and put her hand to her face, feeling the sting of it burning on her cheek.

But Alice did something totally unexpected, grabbing Colbie’s hand and licking her bloodstained palm, and a collective gasp resounded from the throats of the masqueraders.

“I have tagged you,” Alice said. “Now tell me who you are.”

Colbie just stood there, dumbfounded, but knew she had no choice but to answer and said, “I am Colbie Amame of the Amame baronetcy.”

And at her words, another masquerader said, “A traitorous house! My Lady, you can’t possibly trust an Amame!”

And similar arguments resounded amongst the crowd, though Mr. Foster remained silent.

But Alice said to Colbie, “Ignore them, Colbie Amame. I call for a truce between you and me, at least until dawn. What do you say?”

“What are you planning?” Colbie said.

The masqueraders murmured amongst themselves, and the same man said, “Lady Alice, this is madness! I—”

“Do not sully my name with your lips, coward,” Alice yelled, then turned back to Colbie. “Tell you what: Let’s play another game, shall we? Hide and seek, what do you say?”

“You can’t be serious,” Colbie said.

“Oh, but I am.”

“Yeah, right,” she said. “How do I know you’re not gonna pull something on me?”

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Alice said, and grasped Colbie’s hands in both of her own. “We may be enemies, but we can at least be civil for a time, can’t we?”

Colbie had her misgivings, though, and instead of saying so, she merely nodded her head.

“Good!” Alice said. “You’ll be the hider.”

“But if I’m the hider,” Colbie said, fixing Alice with a stare, “I get to choose where I’ll hide, right?”

“Bingo, right you are! It’ll make things much more interesting.” And she pointed towards the crowd, saying, “And these yellow-bellied rascals are the seekers. I’ll give you a head start, so you can find the proper hiding spot, and they must find you. As for you,” she added, turning towards the mystified crowd, “you all must find her before dawn to redeem yourselves, or I’ll have Rancaster kill you, one by one.”

“But, my Lady,” another masquerader said, “we’re already dead.”

“Don’t underestimate Lord Rancaster,” Alice said. “He’s the judge of the living and the dead. None of you know what the death of your soul feels like, but trust me. I know. I’ve been there, and I can assure you that it’s much worse any of you can imagine, and unless you want to experience it for yourselves, you’ll all do well to heed my warning. But,” she added, fixing Colbie with a stare of her own, “you must promise me you won’t cheat and awake before dawn. It wouldn’t be fair for these miserable blokes, even if they deserve what’s coming to them.”

So Colbie thought of her words, then thought of Kendra and Nico and Mara going through God-knows-what with those two Alice doppelgängers, and finally thought of her mother’s encounter with Auna Wenger. She got a good look at this Alice Liddell, looking into her eyes and wondering if Auna Wenger was there somewhere, and said, “I’ll play fair, but I won’t make it easy.”

Alice smiled. “All the better.”

“But if they find me,” Colbie added, “you won’t let them kill me, right?”

Alice kept smiling. “Why on earth would I do that?”

So Colbie kissed her eyes and lips, sending color to Alice’s cheeks, quelling the outrage of the masqueraders into dumbstruck silence, and whispered into her ear, “I’ll let you have more if you find me before they do.”

Then the outrage began anew, murmurs flying through the air, and one by one, the masqueraders edged towards Colbie and Alice.

“I said, stand down, you imbeciles!” Alice yelled.

They backed off, yet the murmurs continued.


6


In the midst of Auna’s despair inside the Looking-Glass mirror, the dream world around her cracked and shattered to pieces and crumbled away into dust before dissipating into nothing, and for a time she stayed there. Yet her soul from out of that void became one with the universe, enfolding herself into the arms of another, feeling someone else’s words breathe warmth against her ear (“I’ll let you have more if you find me before they do.”), and kissing lips as if they were the lips of sweet death. And at those words and at that kiss, the image of a girl she had never met surfaced through her mind before dissipating into the slow-wave static of her dreams.

She then picked herself up and looked at the blank mirror before her and touched its surface, and the image of that same girl manifested in the reflection. For a time, she lingered on the face of this girl, looking at the expression of her eyes, and recognized a semblance that was just on the edge of her memory to pinpoint.

Wracking her brain for that elusive semblance, she touched the mirror again and saw someone else taking shape, an older woman who resembled the girl’s mother, but one thing escaped her.

“Who are you?” Auna said, and ran her finger along the cheek of this older woman’s face. “Have I met you before?”


7


Just ten minutes earlier, Kendra and Mara leaped and rolled out of the path of the Red and White Queens and whirled on their feet, both girls manifesting their weapons in their hands.

“Be careful!” Nico yelled into her earpiece, witnessing the opening seconds of engagement from her perch on the giant chandelier overlooking the purple section of the ballroom.

“We will,” both girls said.

“Just keep your eyes open,” Kendra said.

“Will do,” Nico said.

And Nico kept her eyes on the pair of combatants below her, switching from one pair to the other as Kendra made a break for it into the white section toward the roadblock aisles, putting distance between herself and the Red Queen, then whirling on her feet and firing off three shots. The space resounded with three percussive echoes rising up to Nico’s position and messing with the balance in her ears, so she grasped onto one of the tethering chains. The action tipped the chandelier a bit, clinking the crystals below her feet, and almost made Nico drop the remote control detonator to the floor.

“Be careful, Nico,” she heard Mara say into her earpiece.

Nico looked down below her feet and saw Mara turn her gaze back to her opponent to parry another attack. She heard the clang of engagement, with Mara crossing blades with the White Queen before slamming her foe against the wall under a torrent of psychic pressure waves, then charging into a lunge with her kodachi fixed in her hands, ready to ram it into her chest.

Nico looked away, feeling bile rising in her stomach at the screaming, when another three shots echoed from the white section. Nico turned to the source of the gunshots and found Kendra in one of the roadblock aisles pushing the body of the Red Queen out of the triangle choke between her legs and onto the floor, where blood pooled from the head of her foe’s astral corpse.

Nico turned away and saw Mara below her feet pulling her blade from the White Queen’s sternum and letting her fall to the floor with a thud, like the thud of a casket shutting over the dead, and a pool of blood spread out from her stomach onto the floor. Nico put a hand to her mouth at the sight, feeling another spasm of bile reaching into her throat and filling her mouth with a bitter iron taste, and she threw up.

When she looked at her hand, she found not bile, but blood.

Then, as another wave of nausea flooded through her head from the depths of her churning stomach, she looked down on herself and saw blood welling up beneath the bodice of her dress, then pressed her hand against it and felt the razor sere of a stab wound churning through her insides.

Her then mind flashed on Kendra’s face, and she turned towards the white section of the ballroom where she saw Kendra on hands and knees, pressing a hand against her stomach that was bleeding out its contents through her fingers and into the spreading pool of it on the floor.

“Mara, Kendra’s hurt!” Nico yelled.

And Mara looked up at Nico, then at Kendra, then back up at Nico, and said, “Wait, how did you . . . ? What happened?”

“Go check up on her,” Nico yelled and threw up more blood, struggling to hold onto the tethering chain with one hand and the remote detonator in the other.

“But you’re—”

“Get out of range,” Nico yelled for the last time. “I’m gonna blow the doors open!”


8


Mara wavered for another second, her stomach lurching when she spotted blood spilling from her sister’s mouth, but when Nico screamed for her to go, she sprinted towards Kendra in the white section of the ballroom, where she found her lying on her side against one of the roadblocks with her hand pressed against her stomach.

“What happened?” Mara said.

“What does it look like?” Kendra said, grimacing when Mara grabbed her hands and pulled her back into a sitting position, and when she felt the wound on her stomach, making her wince, Kendra grabbed her wrist, saying, “Don’t do that!”

“What should I do, then?” Mara said. “Tell me!”

“Stop the bleeding. Ugggggh, God,” Kendra said, squinting her eyes shut and grimacing at the residual effects of the stab wound in her stomach. “Stop the blood flow, or I’m gonna pass out!”

So Mara tore off several strips from the hem of her dress, dwindling it down to the top of her thighs, and wound it around Kendra’s wound and tied it the best she could, making Kendra wince and grit her teeth against the spasms of pain stabbing deep into her stomach.

“Uggggggh, fuck,” Kendra said, and began coughing up blood, while Mara kept saying that she was going to be okay, that she was going to survive this the moment she woke up from this dream.

Mara then looked up when she saw movement at the corner of her eye, only to find that—


9


Nico’s legs had buckled underneath her, and she lowered herself while still grasping the tethering chain, straddling the edge of the chandelier and rattling the crystals below her feet, as another wave of pain and nausea clawed through her stomach and made her throw up more blood.

Under her weakening grasp on the remote, she flipped open the cap and pressed the switch and blew the hinges and handles of the double doors in a blast of splinters and smoke, shaking the whole ballroom from floor to ceiling, kicking Katherine’s enchantment into gear. Under it, though the doors hung limp against each other beneath their ruined jambs, the enchantment still held firm and only shimmered in a kaleidoscope of colors around the gaps of detonation.

Nico cursed and doubled over in another wave of nausea churning through her stomach and washing through her head, then doubled over the edge in a wave of vertigo and double vision and fell from her perch—


10


Just as Mara broke off towards Nico’s tenuous position atop the shifting chandelier.

"NICOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Mara screamed, sprinting across the violet section of the ballroom like a gazelle, sprinting beneath the chandelier to break Nico’s fall with her outstretched arms, but she was too late.

Nico’s fall to the floor echoed with the crack of her head against the hardwood parquet flooring, cracking like a firecracker through the ballroom and splattering a halo of blood from her head onto the parquet floor. And that same impact knocked Kendra out cold where she lay slumped against the roadblock in dreamless slow-wave sleep, blood leaking from the same area of impact that Nico had sustained on the back of her head.

Thus, Nico and Kendra, connected in mutual grief over the dead, were laid low by the hand of chance, yet Mara couldn’t believe it, even as she crouched and held her sister’s limp body in her arms and looked into her blank eyes. Nothing stirred there but the glassy-eyed look of the freshly dead, the body cut off from its ghost yet still retaining residual traces of life slipping away for good. And the longer she looked into those eyes, into her doppelgänger’s face, the deeper she drifted back into those hellish moments on Rancaster’s stage with the sick crowd of onlookers beyond the limelight applauding the performance of two doomed sisters, applauding their mutual tragedy.

And for a time, she stayed there even as the astral corpse of her sister dissolved away into nothing, drifting away into the void of forgotten memories, forgotten to all except Kendra and Celia and Colbie and Mara and God, the Keeper of dreams from now till the end of all dreams—


11


As Kendra now fell and fell and fell for a time down through the rabbit hole of unconscious sleep, down through the slow-wave madness of repressed emotions flooding up her soul with fresh sensations of horror dancing on the edge of thought, down and down and down . . .


12


“You’re clever, Lady Amame,” Alice said and licked her lips, savoring the taste of another girl, “but I’ve got somewhere I need to be, and so do you. Get going.”

Yet Colbie didn’t go, at first. She looked at her unlikely ally and said, “What are you gonna do?”

“Meet up with Lord Rancaster in . . .” And here she checked her watch and said, “It’s twelve minutes after six o’clock. He should have been here by now.”

And the rustling and murmuring of the masqueraders lapsed into silence when the click of a door latch resounded through the space, and another door like the one Kendra and Nico and Mara and Colbie had entered now swung open by Alice’s side. In stepped the man himself in a soiled white suit that was torn at the seams, who shut the door behind him with a thud echoing throughout the simulated ballroom.

“You’re late,” Alice said.

“Fashionably so,” he said. “It didn’t take long to find the entrance into this place, but the seals protecting it are absolutely barbaric.”

“You’re Rancaster,” Colbie said.

“That’s Lord Rancaster to you,” Alice said, stalking up to Colbie and pointing her finger in her chest. “And don’t you forget it. Now get going, I say!”

“Now, now, Bambina,” he said. “We’re guests here.” He then turned to Colbie and snatched her hand before she could pull away and kissed her knuckles, then said, “Darling, I’ve seen your fight with Alice, and I must say, you’ve shown yourself to be a brave and honorable woman. I just have one question.”

Colbie pulled away and said, “What is it?”

“When I entered your place, it was in shambles,” he said. “What happened there?”

“A party,” she lied.

“Must have been a hell of a party,” he said. That’s when Alice pulled him down to her level and whispered something into his ear, and he turned to the masqueraders who shook beneath his gaze and said, “I see.”

Then Alice said, “Go now!”

But Colbie shook her head and raised a finger to her lips and smiled at her in a mocking way, saying, “I wanna stick around and see what happens, don’t you?”

That’s when Rancaster and did a double take on their exchange, before leveling a demonic glare at the doorman in particular and saying, “Come over here, Mr. Foster.”

“But, sir, I can—”

“I said, come over here!” Rancaster yelled.

So the man came over, while Rancaster met him halfway, and kneeled on one leg before his judge and executioner and said, “I’m at your command, sir.”

“Remove your mask,” he said.

So the man removed his mask and placed it before Rancaster’s feet, and the expression on his face showed fear beneath his seeming fortitude, but Colbie noticed something more. Out of all the masqueraders present, he was the only one without a weapon of any kind on his person.

“Turn around and kneel on the floor,” Rancaster said, and when Mr. Foster did so, Rancaster manifested his sword-cane and unsheathed its blade and looked around at his horrified audience and said, “Let this be a lesson to all of you. I will not accept anything short of excellence from my retainers. Do you all understand?”

All the masqueraders remained silent, none of them daring a word for fear of incurring Rancaster’s wrath, so they proved their understanding with their actions. They all sheathed their weapons and kneeled before him.

“Good,” Rancaster said, “but I’ll make doubly sure of it.” And he grasped his sword in two hands and rested it above the man’s neck, then raised it above his head and said, “Any last words, Mr. Foster?”

Mr. Foster had now lost his composure and looked to Colbie, sweat dripping down his face, and said, “Lady Amame, I have met your friends a long time ago. If I was a braver man, I would—”

The man cut himself short, leaping to the side just as Rancaster’s swing of his blade clinked against the simulated herringbone parquet of the ballroom and rolling into a crouch, drawing a gun from a leg holster and aiming. But just as he was about to fire, Rancaster moved in a blur, pirouetting with his blade and catching his gun in mid-swing and tumbling it from his grip, continuing through his arc and leveling his blade on Mr. Foster’s neck for a decapitation—

Just as Colbie teleported in a lunge towards Rancaster, grabbed his arm and shoulder-tossed him to the floor, whereon his body thudded and his cane-sword clanged and skittered. Thinking quick, Colbie tackled Mr. Foster and teleported well out of range of the enraged masqueraders as Alice ran to Rancaster’s side, then imagined the collective realm of her last dream dive with her friends and manifested Oriental double doors and shoved Mr. Foster through them.

Colbie looked back as the masqueraders dispersed after her, looked back at Alice through the moving sea of bodies charging after Colbie—

When Alice said, “Stop!”

Again, they paused at her command, but one was antsy enough to say, “My Lady, this is ridiculous! Ever since we got here, you’ve been—”

“Don’t raise your voice at me!” Alice yelled, getting up and stomping towards the protester. “I’ve set the rules for your test, and you and everyone else here are to follow them without question! Do you understand?”

Her outburst quelled the ruckus for a moment, just long enough for Colbie to say, smiling, “I’m glad you kept your word, Alice,” and without waiting for a reply, she stepped past the threshold into another part of the Phantom Realms.

After Colbie’s departure, Rancaster got back to his feet, sheathed his sword-cane, and said, “You have some explaining to do, Alice.”

Alice cringed at the sound of her name on Rancaster’s lips and said, “I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Play that game, are you?” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to me or my retainers here present, should you not explain the meaning behind your actions.”

At those words, Alice deflated somewhat and looked towards the now-disgruntled group of masqueraders loitering at the Oriental double doors, casting accusations that she had betrayed the trust of their Lord Aaron Rancaster with a kiss. Gritting her teeth at these accusations, Alice looked at Rancaster and said, “That Colbie Amame charmed me, and I fell for her ruse, but my heart still belongs to you, my Lord.”

“Are you sure you’re speaking the truth?” he said.

“I am, believe me!” Alice spat, then turned her back on him. “Or don’t believe me, if that’s what you want!”

“Indeed, I am a just and awful judge,” he said, wrapping his arm around her waist and whispering into her ear, “but I am also a merciful and forgiving man.”

Alice looked into his eyes and said, “Are you sure?”

“Tell you what,” he said. “While they’re chasing after those two saboteurs, why don’t we both go to the ballroom and have ourselves a little dance?”

She smiled up at him, but said, “Not yet. I want to make these imbeciles squirm a little longer under their punishment.”

“You’re a cruel child, Bambina.”


13


Colbie charged through the doors into a familiar scene, the same back alleys of weird Little Tokyo or Little China of her previous dream dive, only this time on the twilighted cusp a westering dawn, where floating sky lanterns still lit the sidewalks, and various yokai and yurei shoppers and lingering dreamers were walking the cobbled streets and casting glances her way.

“Where are we?” Mr. Foster said, looking around.

“A public dream dive,” she said, and placed both hands on the double doors and manifested barrier charms and said, “Empódio!”

“I’ve never been here before,” he said.

“No time for sightseeing,” and she grabbed his hand and said, “My charm won’t hold for long,” and teleported herself and her newfound ally down the alleyway towards a T-bone intersection, where a phantom rickshaw runner slid to a stop (“Kuso!”) (Shit!), almost tipping his passengers out of their seats.

“Oi, kisama!” (Hey, you assholes!) the yokai runner yelled.

Colbie took a quick bow, saying, “Sumimasen!” (Sorry!)

“Sorry, my ass!” he said. “Watch where you’re going next time!”

“Sumimasen,” (Excuse me) Colbie said, then pulled an apologizing Mr. Foster with her down the street, then sighted the roofline of a three-story building at the end of the street and teleported again towards it, balancing her feet on the ridge of the roofline and keeping the man from tottering over.

Colbie then threw her gaze across the rooftops of several buildings and housing complexes towards the skyline, where she spied the residual glow of street lamps and neon lights moving like snakes made of spectral fire against a westering sky. The festivities were just winding down before the break of dawn.

When the man regained his balance, clamping his hands on his knees before looking up at Colbie, he said, “Thank you for saving me back there.”

“Listen, buddy,” Colbie said, grabbing onto the man’s arm as she remembered Kendra and Nico talking of their exploits in the ballroom earlier. “I don’t even know who you are, but did you mean what you said?”

“Mean what?”

“What you said about my friends before I saved your sorry ass,” she said. “Did you mean what you said, or were you just making shit up?”

“I meant every word, trust me,” he said, then stood up and fished for his wallet from a pants pocket and showed Colbie his I.D. card. “I’m Detective Specialist Ronald Hamilton of the Phantom Office.”

“But Rancaster called you—”

“Working undercover,” he added, “as in—”

“Ugh, forget about that,” she said, shaking her head. “What did you tell my friends?”

“Your friends?”

“Nico and Kendra,” Colbie said. “Are you even listening?”

At first, the man blanked on their names for several moments, irking Colbie’s impatience to no end. So she teleported two blocks towards the roof of a low-rise hotel, then teleported another two blocks towards the roof of another building overlooking the lingering festivities. She figured they were at least five blocks away from the Oriental double doors housing the masqueraders, five blocks of bustling streets and crowds separating them from their current position.

Colbie turned back to Mr. Foster and said, “Nico and Kendra, what did you tell them?”

The man paused in thought, then his eyes lit up in recognition, and he said, “I do remember them asking around about strange happenings in the Rancaster district, but that was just before the start of the War between the baronetcies. I thought they looked out of place.”

“Wait,” Colbie said, looking at the young man before her from head to foot. “That was over a century ago. How old are you?”

“Don’t ask,” he said. “I’ve been dead for nearly as long.” He then fished out a glass hip flask from the inside pocket of his dress coat and undid the lid, then handed to Colbie and said, “Drink this.”

“I’m under-aged, you know.”

“It’s not alcohol,” he said, pushing it into her hands. “It’s meant to relax fraying nerves.”

“But alcohol does the same thing.”

“Just drink it, okay?”

So Colbie took it and looked at the contents, then said, “It’s not poison, is it?”

“Just drink it!”

So she drank it down to half of its contents and handed the flask and the lid back to him, feeling the liquid filter down her gullet into her stomach, filling her body with a newfound vigor and her head with a clarity of thought and emotion she had never known before.

“Whoa,” Colbie said. “What is it?”

“It’s a potion I got from Amelia Hearn,” he said. “You may have heard of her, I think.”

The girl gaped in front of the man, saying, “You met her? The Blood Rose Witch, are you kidding?”

“No, I’m not kidding,” he said. “And yes, I’ve met her. Twice, in fact: once in her shop for a consultation just before meeting your friends, and once more in a jail cell for a kiss just before meeting my executioner.”

“You’re weird,” Colbie said.

“C'est la vie, mon ami,” (Such is life, my friend) he said and reattached the lid and lifted the bottle up to his eye-level. “Rancaster had me executed afterwards in front of everyone, including Alice, but I still had a fresh supply of this stuff and went incognito and eventually reemerged in their ranks under a new guise and became a mole for the Phantom Office.” He then waited for the liquid in the bottle to refill from the inside and said, “I was an undercover spy for Detective Edmund Tellerman, an honorable man himself, God bless his soul.”

“You knew Kendra’s father?” she said.

“I did, and I even met his partner, Roy Dolan,” he said, “but I never met his daughter. It wasn’t until tonight when I recognized her throwing bombs at the other end of the ballroom that I made the connection, and then you swooped in and saved me.” When the glass flask filled up to the top, he undid the lid, raised his flask to Colbie in a toast, and added, “Here’s to saving me, kid! I owe you one,” and he downed the flask.

“Ew,” Colbie said. “I just drank from there.”

“And sweet taste, too.”

“Ugh, stop it!”

He grinned at her, putting the lid back on and putting the flask back in his inside dress coat, then fished out a small vial and cupped her hands around it.

“What are you doing?” Colbie said.

“Listen to me,” he said. “Think of the place you want to go, and I will bring you there.”

So Colbie thought of the ballroom, where she left Nico and Kendra and Mara, but then thought of Katherine inside the double doors of the grandfather clock at the end of the ballroom, instead, and said, “Thought of it.”

Ronald then took the vial and threw it against the concrete roof of the building, whereon a swirling kaleidoscope of ever-shifting images manifested before their feet. He said, “You go, and I’ll delay them as long as I can.”

“But they’ll—”

He put a finger to Colbie’s lips and said, “There’s a reason why I made you drink that potion,” and before Colbie’s eyes, Ronald’s form glowed and shifted into Colbie’s double. “Now get going!”

That’s when an uproar of voices arose from several blocks away, rising from the normal hubbub of dwindling festivities just before dawn, so Colbie ran towards the portal and jumped in.


14


After a time, Mara looked up towards the double doors of the grandfather clock at the end of the ballroom, both doors dislodged from their hinges, and the empty dial-face stared back at her in idiot indifference, almost daring her to try them.

She picked herself up and ran up to the beckoning door handles.

She grasped them and pulled.

And she pulled.

And pulled.

Yet no matter how Mara pulled and yanked, leveraging her weight against the handles with each pull, she wasn’t strong enough. The doors refused to give way.

So Mara stepped some paces back and manifested her kodachi in her hand, flooding the violet section of the ballroom with waves of psychic energy around her, and slashed the double doors in one desperate arc, but had the opposite effect. Katherine’s protective seal over the doors kicked in, reflecting Mara’s attack back onto her in a tsunami of psychic waves blasting her all the way back into the white section of the ballroom.

When Mara hit the floor, she spat up blood on impact, grimacing in agony as her own powers shot through her body like God’s judgement tearing through her astral body, eating up her soul, and gulping down what was left of her wavering spirit, till she had nothing left to give.

She lay there for a time, winded and wheezing and aching all over, a shattered remnant of what she once was—loving, daring, hopeful, and strong—now reduced to a mere shell of herself—self-loathing, timid, despairing, and weak.

Mara then turned her head and looked over to Kendra lying against the roadblock. She struggled up to her feet, grimacing at the spasms of pain erupting through her body, and limped and hobbled towards Kendra’s side, where she found her motionless with blood oozing down the roadblock from the back of her head, her once heaving breast now still as a corpse’s.

She collapsed to her knees at the sight with images of Nico flooding through her mind and welling up her eyes full of tears, and she banged her fist against the floor, thudding echoes throughout the ballroom. In this way, she mourned in silence, for she had no words left in her to speak words of atonement or swords left in her to fight off the guilt eating away at her soul. For even as words sharpened the emotions of the human heart into swords, like swords they could be blunted into uselessness, unable to describe the soul-shattering pain of the present.

Then the light of the chandeliers flickered above her head and went out, one by one, drowning the ballroom in darkness, then came back on again all at once.

With those lights, Alice Liddell in her blood-stained Sunday dress appeared before her and said, “Hello, there!” And she kicked across her solar plexus and away from Kendra’s body.

Mara’s vision blurred in and out before refocusing on Alice with Kendra’s body. “Please, don’t hurt her!”

“Oh, I think she’s beyond hurting, this one,” Alice said, pressing a hand to her chest. “Tsk, tsk, tsk, such a pity. I would've had fun with her, too, if I had the chance.”

“Wha . . .” Mara said, struggling to her feet once more. “What are you talking about?”

But Alice ignored her question and reached around Kendra’s back and held her silver chord in her hand, saying, “Ah, what do we have here?”

“Don’t!” Mara said.

“Ohhhh, but I will,” and Alice manifested her knife and placed it over Kendra's lifeline, “if you don’t cooperate. Isn’t that right, Lord Rancaster?”

“Quiet,” he said, and when Mara turned around, she saw that demon of a man pressing his hand to the door. He then manifested a six-shot revolver in one hand, twirling it around like a gunslinger, and took aim at Mara’s legs. “Bambina, your Prince Prospero’s inside there.”

“Really?” Alice said, perking up. “Oooooh, I’d love to have one more tango with her!”

And before Mara broke into a dead run, before she got out of the way, before she could even blink, the gun went off and she felt a wave of fire erupting through her left leg. She screamed and collapsed, clasping her leg with both hands, grimacing and gritting her teeth, but to no avail.

“It hurts, doesn’t it, Mara Cairns?” Rancaster said, ambling to where Mara lay in agony. “It hurts more than anything in the world, because you’re still tied to that living body of yours. That’s what life does to you, darling. It beats you down and makes you hurt all over till you don’t want to live anymore, till you just want to end it with one merciful bullet to the old noggin. It takes real courage to keep on living a life of anguish, and you’ve only had a taste of it.”

He then grasped Mara by the collar and forced her to stand up on one leg, then noticed the earpiece in Mara’s ear and said, “Call your friend, darling. Let her know you’re here.”

Yet through the pain, through the tears, through it all, she glared up at his despicable face and said, “No.”

“Do you really want to test me, darling?” he said. “Call your friend, now!”

“No!” Mara yelled, and spat in his face.

But her show of defiance only made Rancaster smile and wipe the spit from his cheek. So he let Mara fall to the ground, renewing the agony in her leg, then picked her up by her wrists and pinned her arms behind her back and said, “Bambina, come over and make her talk.”

Alice ran up to her and said, “No restrictions?”

“Keep it civil,” he said, “but have your way with her. We don’t have much time left, so make her talk.”

So Alice took her knife and undressed her like a piece of meat, cutting the fabric around her waist and cutting the straps holding Mara’s dress over her shoulder and letting it fall to her feet.

But through it all, Mara kept her silence, praying that Colbie won’t try to contact her.

“It’ll only get worse, darling,” Rancaster whispered in her ear. “Call here now.”

“No!” Mara said.

So Alice went to work on Mara’s blouse, saying, “Now comes the fun part,” and cut her blouse down the middle all the way to her hips, revealing her bra and panties.

“Call her now, darling,” Rancaster said.

“No!”

So Alice cut the straps of her bra, letting the cups fall and reveal her breasts, then cut the waistband of her panties, letting it fall down her leg. Now Mara was completely exposed, and when Alice brushed her fingers across her pubic hairs, she fidgeted and turned her thighs in and began to cry. So Alice took her knife and stuck the point of it in the swell of her leg wound, whereon Mara yelped and winced and grimaced, gritting her teeth to the last inch of her endurance, yet through it all, she endured.

“Call her, darling,” Rancaster said.

“No,” she said as tears ran down her face, as her voice became labored under the strain of physical torture.

So Alice changed tactics, dissipating her knife, and said, “How did you make love to your sister, hmmm? Did you kiss her?” And she attempted to kiss her lips, but Mara turned away. “Did you fondle her breasts?” And she fondled her breasts and thumbed her nipples, making her struggle under Rancaster’s hold. “Did you play with her pussy?” And she placed her fingers to the lips of her pussy, making Mara fidget and clamp down her thighs.

Now Mara was a crying and sniffling puddle of tears and mucus, her resolve now shaken, so Alice changed tactics again and said, “Maybe you’re not the type of girl who likes being played with. Maybe you’re the type of girl who likes watching, instead. Maybe you want to watch me play with her, instead,” and she pointed towards Kendra’s prone body by the roadblocks.

“No, don’t!” Mara yelled.

“Oh, but I bet you do!” And she ran back over to the roadblocks, coming to Kendra’s body, and crouched down over her.

“No! Please don’t,” Mara said, struggling against Rancaster’s hold. “Please, don’t mess with her, I’m begging you!”

“Oh, now you’ve turned beggar, have you?” Alice said, taking up Kendra’s silver cord and manifesting her blade over it. “Then beg for me to stop, like the bitch I know you are! Beg, bitch! Beg!”

And Mara broke down, saying, “Stop it, stooooop iiiiit! I’ll do anything—just stooooop!”

“Anything?” Rancaster said. “Will you keep your word on that?”

And the defeated Mara nodded her head, ready to do anything to keep Kendra from losing her life.

So Rancaster turned to Alice and said, “You can stop now.”

“But why?” Alice said. “I haven’t even started!”

“Stop acting childish, Bambina,” Rancaster said. “It’s unbecoming of a future queen.”

Alice gritted her teeth, but dissipated her blade and pouted and said, “You’re no fun.”

“I’ll cut you a deal, Mara Cairns,” Rancaster said. “All you have to do, darling, is call your friend beyond those doors and tell her to give you up. Turn yourself in, and all of this horror will be gone, I promise. Will you do that?”

At this point, Mara was too shattered for words, so she just nodded her head again and cried some more, praying that Colbie won’t contact her, praying for the dawn to come, praying for this nightmare to end.


15


On the other side of the portal, Colbie landed with a thud and a tumble onto a checkered tile floor of Katherine’s seventh room.

When she picked herself up and looked around, Colbie saw Katherine’s astral body, covered in a shroud the color of blood, lying over a bed of roses atop a catafalque with a pink rose clutched in her hand over her chest. The rose itself inside her hand was pulsing with Katherine’s heartbeats animating its petals, lighting up the inside of the mausoleum in with a pulsing glow because Katherine was alive and well, even when submerged in unconsciousness. She looked on at the wondrous scene of Katherine lying there, sleeping like a painted lady on a painter’s canvas.

Colbie approached the scene under the influence of three cognitive dissonances: one between Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and “Little Briar Rose” from the Brothers Grimm, another between that dark Sleeping Beauty movie Colbie had watched with her mother and Katherine before her, and a third between the kiss that the prince shared with his sleeping beauty and the kiss that Colbied had shared with Mara and Alice. All these dissonances flooded her mind and quickened her heartbeats and faltered her steps, yet Colbie nevertheless reached Katherine’s side and steadied herself on the catafalque.

She took deep breaths to steady the quaking of her heart, looking over the peaceful expression of Katherine’s face, while her mind raced a mile a second, the synapses of intuition making connections faster than she could comprehend. Both tales and their adaptations on film and in Colbie’s dream had one motif in common: the prince. That’s when she remembered the strange woman’s words to her by the double doors of the ballroom: ‘Think of Sleeping Beauty, and you’ll know what to do.’

As such, Colbie placed her hand over the pulsing rose in Katherine’s hand and took one more deep breath to steady her nerves, then lowered herself over Katherine’s face and kissed her lips with the lips of death.

Out of Katherine’s clasp was torn asunder the beating rose into fluttering petals. Out of those lips arose new life, an inhalation of breath from lips to lips and an exhalation of spirit from soul to soul. And out of that one soul arose two spirits—Cooley’s wrapping her arms around Colbie’s waist and returning her kiss with a sister’s affection, and Katherine’s reanimating her astral body and wrapping her arms around Colbie’s neck with a sister’s friendship.

Colbie pulled away from both embraces and said, “Kathy?”

Katherine sat up on her catafalque and looked at the pink rose Celia had given her, now shredded of its petals, and turned to Colbie and said, “You woke me up just in time.”

Colbie grabbed her hands, helping her to her feet as Katherine clung to her shroud, and said, “Can you stand?”

“I think so,” Katherine said.

So Colbie hoisted Katherine’s arm over her shoulder and helped her towards the blasted double doors of the grandfather clock, wherein neither girl could see past the splintery gaps. All was blurry between the gaps of the broken doors, so Katherine placed her hand on its shimmering seal and summoned her mirror to it, showing a reflection of themselves against the backdrop of the mausoleum’s interior.

“Don’t push yourself,” Colbie said.

“I won’t,” Katherine said, then touched the palm of her hand on the reflection, took a deep breath, and yelled, “Reflect!” But the spell was unable to complete its circuit, her mirror shimmering their reflections, but nothing else. “I need another mirror on the other side of this door.”

Colbie thought of Nico’s plan and said into her earpiece, “Nico, this Colbie. I have Katherine with me on the other side of these doors.” But there was only static. “Nico, this is Colbie.” Again, only static answered back. “Nico, this is Colbie!”

“Nico’s gone,” Mara said, sniffling on the other end of the connection. “Colbie, I have to tell—”

“Gone . . . What do you mean by that?” she said, waiting for Mara’s reply, then: “Mara, what happened?”

Mara didn’t reply, and Colbie and Katherine traded worried looks, so Katherine said, “Mara, tell us what happened. . . . We need to know.”

“Nico blew the double doors,” Mara said, “but I still couldn’t get them to open. After everything we went through, after everything Kendra and Nico did, I still couldn’t do it!”

And she cried into Colbie’s earpiece, and her words brought an icy premonition stabbing through her chest.

“No,” Colbie breathed. “Mara, what happened to Nico? What happened to Kendra?”

“I’m so sorry, Colbie,” Mara said. “It’s all my fault. Kendra, she’s . . . she’s . . .”

“Can’t you just wake her up?” Colbie said, praying that Kendra was still okay, still breathing, still—

“I can’t!” Mara yelled. “Nothing I can do can make her wake up, not from this. I’m sorry.”

Ere Colbie broke down in tears, Katherine said, “Colbie, what time is it?”

Colbie looked at her watch and said, “Six-twenty-three.”

“There’s still time,” she said. “I can still save your friend. If you can just get her to place a mirror up to the door, and I can repeat the spell and save her!”

At her words, Colbie’s hopes renewed, and she said over her earpiece, “Mara, do you remember Nico’s plan? Get a mirror up to this door, and we can get through and save Kendra. Hurry!”

But Mara didn’t respond; she only sobbed at the other end.

“Mara, please, stop crying,” Colbie said, feeling the horror of the moment seeping into her voice. “We’ve got this. Just hang in there for me, please!”

Again Mara stayed silent, sniffling.

Nevertheless, something thumped on the other side of the door, and the last voice Colbie ever expected to hear spoke through the static and said, “It’s there, darling. Now both of you come out of there, like good proper ladies, and nothing else will happen.”

Colbie and Katherine held their breath at the sound of Rancaster’s voice over the connection, and both traded looks of dread on their faces.

Katherine placed her hand to the mirror, but Colbie grabbed a hold of it, saying, “It’s a trap!”

“But we have to save your friend!” Katherine yelled.

“What if it’s a trap?”

“I’d listen to your elder, Lady Amame,” Rancaster said. “And if you need more coaxing,” and a metallic click resounded through Colbie’s earpiece, “I have your precious Mara Cairns here with a gun pointed at her head. I’ve already shot her once. A second shot will do her in permanently. And if you still refuse to come out, I guarantee your friend will die. Lady Alice will make sure of it!”

Colbie no longer needed convincing.

Katherine replaced her hand on her mirror and yelled, “Reflect!”


16


And both girls appeared on the other side of the door before the second mirror, both turning only to see a sobbing Mara stripped down to just her blouse, and held with arms locked behind her back by that man in the white suit.

At first, both girls were silent in shock, but Colbie regained herself and said, “What the fuck did you do to her?”

“Oh, just got through to her,” Rancaster said. “It took quite a bit of coaxing, but she saw the light, praise God!”

Colbie stalked towards the man with murderous intentions, ready to summon her winds.

“Nah, ah, ah, darling,” he said, taking his gun and pointing it at Mara’s head, and looked over to Kendra lying motionless next to the roadblocks, where Alice held her knife over her silver cord. “Unless you want your friend to die, you won’t do a Goddamn thing with that dagger of yours. So put it away like a good little girl, and all will be well with her.”

Colbie followed his gaze and seethed with a flutter of wind swirling around her like a tornado of malice and said, “I swear to God, you fucking bitch, if you don’t put that knife away, I’ll—”

“Or what?” Alice said. “You know we’ve got the upper hand here, Lady Amame. Either you let your precious Mara here go, or your precious Kendra here dies!”

Colbie stalked towards her.

“Colbie, don’t!” Mara said.

“But . . .” Colbie said, taking another step towards her. “But, Mara, I’m—”

“Please, let me be,” Mara said, tears streaming down her face as she looked down to the floor. “Just let me be. I’ve already caused your friends so much pain. Think of Kendra, think of Celia, think of my sister. I don’t want to be the reason why your friend is dead, so please . . . Please, I’m begging you! Let me go. Just let me go.”

“Mara,” she said.

“It’s a losing gamble, darling,” Rancaster said. “Two lives hang in the balance, and their lives depend on you making the right decision. It’s now or never, Lady Amame, and for your sake, I hope you make the right decision.”

Colbie gritted her teeth, mentally cursing the bastard before her and the bitch by the roadblocks, but she lowered her dagger by her side and said, “Tell that bitch of yours to back off of Kendra. Now!”

“You heard the girl, Bambina,” Rancaster said. “Back off.”

“Why should I?”

“Keep your word, Bambina,” he said.

So Alice got up and moved away and ambled towards Rancaster and Mara, while Katherine ran towards Kendra and threw her shroud over her body and said, “We should go, Colbie. We can’t do anything for Mara right now.”

“Any last words, darling?” Rancaster said to Colbie. “I promise you, the next time you see your precious Mara Cairns, she won’t be yours anymore.”

So Colbie looked at the pitiful specimen of humanity before her, looked at this tormented soul on the verge of giving up, and said, “Mara, can you hear me?” And when the girl raised her head and looked at her, Colbie said, “Mara, I promise you, I’ll do everything I can to get you back. I promise. As God as my witness, I promise!”

And before Mara had a chance to speak, the lights overhead flickered on and off, and a darkness more than night flooded Katherine’s ballroom, turning it into a void that drummed to a beating heart. And in that beating void, the forms of Rancaster and Alice and Mara dissipated into wisps of fog emanating below his feet.

Colbie kept her eyes on that spot where they left with Mara with them, letting the gravity of the situation fall on her shoulders, till she caved in and fell to her knees and cried, till the sound of her mother’s words merged with her sobs and took her down the rabbit hole of sleep and into her mother’s arms.


つづく

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About the author

Fox-Trot-9

Bio: From Las Vegas, NV, welcome to my profile, RoyalRoadsters! I'm Foxy, the fluffy butt-stabber! I'm weird, introverted, impatient, cheerful (half the time), and friendly. I'm a Catholic, a former college student, a dream diarist, an amateur poet and short story writer and novelist, and a chronic perfectionist, ugh!

Genres I write include dark fantasy, gothic, magical girl, occult detective, action, thriller, horror, genre mashups, LGBT, and a dash of ecchi.

Genres I read include whatever catches my fancy. Who knows? It might be one of yours!

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