Beta by crimson cookie
He had told himself that she was dead, that the rumors were only rumors told by shadows and she couldn't still be out there -
And then he'd gone, just to be sure and safe.
Shadows watched him from the woods, yellow eyes peering at the pale head of hair and the thin face barely visible under the black hood. He turned and looked back at them with blindfolded eyes, watching through the binding cloth. They winked in and out, trusting his sight more than the blindfold, now moving near, now moving far, never quite within the reach of the winged-blade resting in his hand, watching them with its single blue eye.
He knew the shadows weren't smart enough to recognize danger. So what held them back?
It was huge - black - with glowing eyes - and teeth! Oh my fur and whiskers - and claws! And it made such noises - such terrible noises!
She was dead. It couldn't be her.
Still the shadows watched and the rumors flew and so he had to come and look -
And look -
There was nothing. No matter where he looked, there was nothing beyond the blindfold but trees and moss and shadows.
"If you're looking - for Alice? She's not here."
"I should hope not." He turned his face up toward the crescent moon grin perched above him. "This is hardly a fit place for a Princess."
"But you are - looking - for something? Aren't you?" The grin rolled over, followed by a spiral of stripes.
He eyed the striped smile with distrust, but nodded all the same. "Yes. There are rumors of a monster in these woods."
"Oh, there are monsters everywhere." The smile laughed. Two eyes sprouted below it and winked at him. "What sort of monster were you looking for?"
"Something like a dragon," he replied, his mind filled with memories of black and purple scales and green fire spewing from a reptilian mouth. "Black, winged, with glowing eyes and sharp teeth."
"Hmm..." the smile rolled over again, gaining a second set of stripes, a nose, and whiskers, and it really was a cat looking down at him from the branches. "There might be something like that -" the cat's tail formed a loop through which it watched him, "Around here. Then again - there might not."
He frowned, gloved fingers tightening unconsciously on the hilt of his sword which glared up at the cat. "Thanks for the help." He turned to go, back through the shadows and the tulgey wood, back to his search.
"If I were looking - mm - for a monster," the cat continued, conversational, as if he weren't faced with a retreating back, "I would look near heartless trees."
"Heartless trees?" He stopped, not turning, but listening. He knew the cat wouldn't give him a straight answer, but perhaps, if he could puzzle out the clues - "How can there be heartless trees? Trees don't have hearts to begin with."
"Oh, but they do!" The cat laughed, resting his chin in his paws. "After all, a tree can die - can't it?"
He thought about that. "Yes."
"And how can something die - if it doesn't live?"
He frowned. "It can't."
"And how can something live -" the cat's smile grew larger if such a thing were possible, "If it doesn't have a heart?"
His frown deepened as he looked back through the darkness at the shadows, clinging to the bark like the moss, watching him back. He didn't reply, simply started walking again, aiming for where the shadows were thickest.
Behind him the stripes unraveled, the eyes winked out, and the smile sang nonsense until it faded.
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe ~
And yet -
And yet he was the one looking for someone who was dead, for someone who couldn't still exist, in a land ruled by the mad.
The shadows scampered ahead of him, grouping and ungrouping, will-o-wisp eyes leading him through the trees. He was aware that they were herding him, but he didn't care. Darkness inevitably leads to more darkness.
The moss stretched down from the overhanging tree limbs, a dead man's beard of green and grey, brushing against his hood, obscuring the shadows like a living curtain. He reached out with his free hand and stroked it as he walked, expression thoughtful under the hood.
If something isn't alive -
How can it die?
For all of their reaching, skeleton branches and moss, these trees were alive. Tree hearts beat sap through tree veins and if he closed his eyes behind the darkness he could almost hear the rhythm. He stopped, listened.
There was a gap out there in the woods and the shadows. There was a place where the heartbeat faltered. The shadows were leading him - somewhere else.
His lips twitched. Perhaps shadows weren't quite as stupid as he thought.
He opened his eyes and turned toward the place where the beat of the forest failed.
The shadows paused, eyes swiveling and bobbing at the change in his course, then broke, swirling around in front of him. For a while they formed an eddy of darkness, trying to sweep him back the way he'd been going. Some were even foolish enough to come within the reach of the one-winged-blade and died as noiselessly as they'd lived.
Eventually they got the hint and one by one their little light eyes winked out all together. He doubted they were gone for good. He could almost hear them in the back of his mind, out among the tree trunks and the moss, moving to head him off again. If anything, it simply served to convince him he was indeed heading in the right direction.
Somewhere in the distance, a writing desk cawed in warning.
There were none of the usual signs that the trees were about to give way - no increase in light or bird song. If anything, the world grew still and silent and the darkness doubled and then the trees ended and he kept walking.
The shadows were waiting for him. They swarmed ant-thick around the base of the tree in the center of the clearing, scaled its trunk like the moss, and watched him intently. He held the sword out and watched back, taking in the sight of the shadows and the tree.
It was - he knew, despite the invisibility of any marking - a heartless tree. Fat at the base, it rose into a tangle of branches crowned with deep, blood purple leaves. He looked up and up and -
There were shadows watching from between the leaves, but he still had the sense that the tree was watching him as well.
Keeping his blade outstretched before him, he moved toward the tree.
The shadows surged forward to meet him, not even bothering with ones and twos but meeting him in fours and fives and getting thicker. The edge of the blade's wing sang through the air and darkness, meeting the onslaught, but they were so thick that they got past it anyway - one, then another he brought the blade back to deal with the first one - and sank sharp little nails into his legs and his arms, occasionally his side, some deep enough that he could feel the blood trickling down his skin.
He swore and kept moving. Yes, there were a lot of them, but not so many that he couldn't make it to the tree and the tree -
The tree needed to die. He could hear it laughing at him as its leaves rustled, could feel it watching him, and wondered how a tree - of all things, a tree! - could feed so much darkness.
The shadows parted before him, one at a time, a slow procession. He kept his guard up, his eyes down upon the enemy crawling and crouching before him all the way to the tree.
If it hadn't been for the noise, he wouldn't have looked up in time.
It was as if someone was trying to scream and gargle mouthwash at the same time and it made his skin want to go crawling back into the safety of the living trees. He looked up, eyes wide behind the blindfold, just in time to get an impression of black and luminous green and dodge to the right before a leech-mouth full of teeth closed over his head. It wasn't far enough to avoid the creature all together and he screamed himself as the teeth closed on his shoulder, deep enough to glance off of the bone.
The creature's head and neck were at entirely the wrong angle for a good sword blow, so he reversed his grip and brought the sword's hilt around and into what he hoped was an eye. He was rewarded with another of those burbling shrieks and a sickening popping sensation that left his hand covered in he didn't want to know what and the monster pulled back, glaring at him from one glowing, bulbous eye.
It wasn't her, but that wasn't much comfort.
He backed away, swatting at the shadows clinging to his legs with his left hand, bringing his right and his sword up between himself and the tree and the monster. The creature perched in the tree's branches, holding its perch with one set of long, tree branch claws, reaching for him with the other. It twisted its injured head on a serpentine neck, round jaws gaping open to show a ring of teeth, and further back in the darkness, he thought he could make out a pair of wings beating amongst the leaves.
It wasn't her - he didn't know what it was - but there was no way he was going to leave something like that at the heart of Wonderland.
Hissing against the pain in his left shoulder, he brought his sword around and slashed out at the claws grasping for him. The creature pulled them out of range, then lunged forward again, but he twisted, bringing the blade back, and felt the satisfying bite of steel against scale - muscle - tendon, before the creature pulled back. He followed the injured arm in, closer to the tree, closer to the head.
Balanced as the thing was in the crook of the tree, it couldn't let go with its good hand and the injured one lacked the strength to hold it. Left with the option of injured hand or head, it hesitated a minute - long enough for him to stab a particularly bold shadow that tried to jump him - then reached again with the hand.
This time he was too fast for it and his blow too strong and the grasping claws fell, disappeared into the teeming shadows at his feet. Caring creatures that they were, they ripped it apart with as much voracity as they'd attacked him.
He didn't watch.
He kept his eyes trained on the monster's head as it reared back, near deafening in its rage. It trembled, fixed its one-eyed glare on him, lunged -
He dodged, blade coming up and over once to the back of the spine and again -
It wasn't quite blood that spewed out and drenched him - too sticky and dark, like liquid tar. It fell on the shadows and they opened their mouths like children catching raindrops. There was the crash of weight on dead leaves from the other side of the tree as the creature's body toppled backwards and the shadows thinned. The ones that stayed fell on the head and neck, ripping at the dark scales with their claws.
They would only be distracted for so long. Without pausing to watch, he shoved the blade backwards, through the heart of the tree - felt it bite - listened to the thrashing of the branches above him -
Then opened a portal through the darkness and left.
He stepped into the room and waited to be acknowledged. He didn't have to wait long.
"Did you find it?" The red-robed back stayed turned toward him, only the slight turn of the head showing that DiZ was actually listening for his reply.
He nodded, once, for himself since the other man wouldn't see it. "Yes."
"It wasn't her."
"I see." DiZ turned his attention back to the glow of the screens. "But you destroyed it anyway?"
Again, he nodded, feeling the bruises on his arm and the flow of blood down his back and the million little scratches from the shadows. "Yes."
"This is good. We must always be on our guard against the darkness."