Jonathan slid off the haystack awkwardly and landed on one of his ankles. He winced and sucked air in through clenched teeth, but the pain was gone almost instantly, leaving him to stand up properly and give his surroundings a good look. The landscape was contrasting shades of green and brown, rolling hills and farmsteads stretching as far as the eye could see. There were patches of dark, scary woods spread here and there (one with an ivory tower standing amongst the trees) , but for the most part it was picturesque farmland.
Atop a hill in the distance, a small, squat castle stood silhouetted against the sky. It was made of slate gray stones, best as Jonathan could tell, and looked terribly run down. Further in the distance still an even more grandiose palace with magnificent spires of sparkling silver rose, cutting into the clouds. Beyond that, a stretch of blue that must have been a huge lake and a mountain range.
It really was quite beautiful.
He heard Techie as she scrabbled down from the haystack and helped the Captain up. He turned to look at them and noted just how absurd they appeared: Techie in her raggedy little dress and tattered, dirty pinafore and the Captain still in her pirate attire. Of course, he supposed he looked just as out of place, dressed as he was, but at least his own sackcloth garb was similar to what he usually wore.
"Where do you think we are?" the Captain asked breathlessly, shielding her eyes with her hand as she scanned the horizon.
Techie echoed her friend's movement and looked bewildered, brow furrowed and nose scrunched up. "That's not right," she muttered. "It can't be."
"I've been here already. I remember those." She pointed at the castles. "I mean, I saw them from a different angle, when I was leaving for grandma's house, but I remember them."
"This is Little Red Riding Hood's universe?" the Captain asked, picking pieces of hay off herself.
"You'd think so," Techie said thoughtfully. "But I don't remember it being this extensive. I guess it looks different from out here and not in the middle of a village in the mountains."
Jonathan spoke up. "Could the program be malfunctioning? Sending us somewhere you've already been?"
"No. No, I don't think so." Techie straightened her dress and started walking towards the nearest fence that divided the hayfield from the road. Her companions followed. "If we were living out the same part of the program that I did, we'd be retracing my steps exactly. I think this story just shares an environment with mine, that's all. You know, like a theatre using the same sets for two different productions."
"So what story are we in?" the Captain asked, rounding yet another haystack. Her foot found something solid and she tripped, stumbling forward and only barely retaining her balance. "What the hell was--"
A little boy, roughly seven or eight years old, rosy cheeked and golden haired, sat slumped against the haystack, fast asleep. Next to him was a satchel that lay open, a shiny red apple with a few bites out of it that had been forgotten when he'd nodded off to sleep and a little brass horn next to that.
"He's adorable," she murmured, her expression turning soft and fond. "Who is he?"
"Little Boy Blue." Jonathan muttered in response.
Both the Captain and Techie looked at him. They felt like accusing stares.
"What?" he snapped. "Am I not allowed to know nursery rhymes?"
"We can't be stuck in a nursery rhyme," Techie said, pursing her lips in thought. "Nursery rhymes aren't long enough for the technology to construct a satisfying adventure for the user."
"Maybe he's just set dressing," the Captain replied, giving the boy one last glance before resuming walking. The wooden fence seemed unbelievably close, considering how far they had been from it mere moments before. It seemed like only a few steps before they were standing before the three tiered railing and scrambling over it.
"I suppose," Techie said with a grunt, swinging one leg over the fence, her dress getting caught on a rusty nail and tearing as she launched herself over the barrier.
Jonathan pulled himself over the fence with a little more grace than the girls did, but not much more.
The dirt road they now stood on stretched in either direction, a golden ribbon that cut across countless fields. To the left was an ominous looking forest while to the right was more friendly looking farm country.
"What do you figure?" Techie asked, the question directed at Jonathan.
"I thought you were the expert here," he replied flatly.
She didn't bother to glare at him the way he thought she would.
"I vote we go through the spooky forest," the Captain piped up with a little too much enthusiasm.
"You would," Techie said with a roll of her eyes.
"Hey, all good stories have a spooky forest in them," she defended. "Nothing interesting ever happened out in the golden countryside."
Without another word, she turned and started for the forest, obviously expecting Techie and Jonathan to follow. However, she took five steps and slammed into something invisible that sent her sprawling.
"Captain!" Techie rushed to her side and helped the dazed henchgirl-cum-pirate sit up. "Are you okay?"
The Captain rubbed her forehead, bemused. "There's a wall there."
"We're stuck in a side scroller?"
"Must be." The Captain got to her feet. "I guess we go through Pleasant County whether I like it or not."
Jonathan, who watched this exchange impatiently, stood with his arms folded over his ribcage. When a hand clamped down over his shoulder, he let out an undignified yelp and spun on his heel, fists raised instinctively. The girls were at his side in an instant, invisible walls and spooky forests forgotten, but they needn't have bothered: the perceived threat was nothing but a willowy blonde in a shepherdess' habit who looked an awful lot like Harleen Quinzel.
"Excuse me, good sir," the blonde said politely, giving Jonathan a delicate curtsey, as though she hadn't nearly scared him out of his skin a few seconds earlier. "Have you seen my sheep?"
Jonathan looked at the vacant blonde and then cast his eyes to the field that stood directly behind her, adjacent to the hayfield that he and his henchgirls had just vacated. The field that was positively thick with white, cottony sheep.
"Maybe you should check the fields," he replied dryly.
"I've looked everywhere for them," she said forlornly, her bottom lip sticking out in an exaggerated pout. "But I just can't seem to find them."
If he wasn't terribly mistaken, she was looking more and more like Harley by the second.
"I'm afraid I haven't, then."
Little Bo Peep's face fell and she looked positively inconsolable. "Oh. Well, thank you anyway, I suppose."
"Excuse me," the Captain chirped, sounding as cheerful as she possibly could. "Do you know where we are?"
Bo Peep looked more confused than ever, which was quite a feat. "Sorry?"
The Captain tried again. "I mean…can you tell us where we are?"
"Well, you're here, of course." Little Bo Peep glanced around. "Oh! There's my sheep!"
"Where's here?" the Captain asked, her patience clearly growing thin.
"Huh?" Bo Peep turned back from the field where her sheep were grazing and blinked. "Oh! Hello. Who are you?"
The Captain's left eyelid twitched. "I'm--"
"Have you seen my sheep?"
"No," she said shortly, grabbing both Jonathan and Techie by their arms and dragging them off down the road. "If you'll excuse us, we must be going."
"Fare thee well!" Bo Peep shouted after them cheerfully. "If you see my sheep--oh! There they are!"
After leaving Little Bo Peep, Jonathan, the Captain and Techie walked for miles, passing farmstead after farmstead without incident. Along the way, they passed a man with seven women trailing along behind him, each carrying a sack that meowed loudly, three little kittens bemoaning the loss of their mittens and a group of farm animals carrying instruments and merrily singing for no one in particular. As each of these groups passed, the three traveling companions grew more confused.
"I recognize them," Techie said as the Bremen Town musicians wandered out of earshot, "nursery rhymes and a folk tale, but I don't see how any of them could be the basis for an ANI adventure. It doesn't make sense. We aren't in the middle of a major storyline, just wandering around the scenery."
"And no sign of Al, either," the Captain added, somewhat worriedly.
"Unless she was the jackass." Jonathan jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction the animals had gone in.
"Very funny," Techie snapped, growing more irritable by the second.
"There's no need to get snippy," the Captain soothed, "we'll find her. There's got to be a road sign or something around here to point us in the right direction. The program practically led me by the nose when I was confused during Peter Pan."
Techie opened her mouth to respond but instead paused, working her jaw in silence for a few moments. She tilted her head, as though listening to some far off sound and then her brow collapsed into a mass of crinkles.
The Captain and Jonathan shared a look. "Techie?"
She didn't answer for several seconds and when she finally did, her voice sounded meek. "Do you guys hear that?"
Jonathan strained his ears, listening as hard as he possibly could. Yes, somewhere beneath the sound of birds was the distant hum of music. Not folk music, either, no mandolins or flutes, which is what would be expected in such a rural setting, but instead, a piano, bass and guitar. The sound of an angry, discordant horn that was trying to play along with the first three instruments overlaid the harmonious melody, almost ruining it.
The Captain's eyes went wide. "Is that jazz?"
Her face lit up and she broke into a run in the direction Jonathan guessed the music was coming from. The only explanation she offered was shouted back over her shoulder, "If there's one place Al will be, it's where the music's at!"
Techie took off after her, a bit slower and he followed, walking at a perfectly reasonable pace. Much as he wanted to find Al and finally escape from this crazy place, there was no need for dramatics. He guessed it was nearly a mile of walking before he finally stopped. He passed two fields before catching up with his henchgirls, one that contained another pile of straw and the second a massive pile of firewood. A small, squat brick building with a sign hanging above the door that read "House of Bricks" was beyond them and that is where the Captain and Techie had stopped.
The Captain stood hunched over, pressing her hand to the center of her chest and Techie hovered over her, patting her on the back comfortingly as she angrily muttered about suck-lungs. The music was indeed coming from inside the House of Bricks and Jonathan took a moment to further study the building. It was rather out of place with the surrounding countryside, a modern building in a place that seemed, for the most part, to be trapped in the fourteenth century. More puzzling still was the fact that the cornerstone of the building had the number '1776' stamped into it, as though that's when it had been erected.
Another sign, this one actually on the door itself, read 'No Wolves Allowed' and beneath it, crumpled like he'd taken a nasty beating, sat a wolf like none Jonathan had ever seen. He was built more like a man than an animal, wearing the most garish yellow pants and burgundy suit jacket the Scarecrow had ever seen. Beside him there was a trumpet, crushed nearly beyond recognition and on his head sat a cap like those that countless cabbies in Gotham wore.
By the time Jonathan finished giving the place the once over, the Captain had recovered and was flapping her hands excitedly.
"I know where we are!"
He turned to her, surprised. "You do?"
She beamed. "Remember the story of the three little pigs?"
"One played the pipe and the others danced jigs?"
"The three little pigs are still around," she continued with a flourish, "but they're playing music with a modern sound."
"Why the devil are you rhyming?"
"Not rhyming," the Captain said happily. "Quoting."
"Quoting," he repeated dubiously. "Quoting what?"
"Friz Freling, of course." She turned her attention to the House of Bricks. "The Three Little Bops. It's an old Warner Brothers cartoon about the Three Little Pigs. A modern jazz interpretation of the story."
"I remember that one," Techie said with a thoughtful frown. "But what the heck is it doing here?"
"I dunno. I mean, they couldn't really market this story to anybody--who wants to be a piano playing pig?" The Captain shrugged. "But I betcha somebody inside the House of Bricks can point us in the right direction."
After the three companions made their way up the walk and opened the door to the building, they found a smoky tavern/eatery inside, populated with all sorts of strange people. The bartender was some sort of beast with a lion's head on a man's body and the bar patrons were just as odd. Seven little men, each a little under five feet tall, sat at a table crying into their ale, their pickaxes and shovels leaning against the nearest wall. Across from them, another table was populated with tiny people no bigger than a man's thumb, all of them dancing merrily on the tabletop. Every table was crowded with the most extraordinary beings and at the far wall, on a makeshift stage, sat the three little pigs, all dressed like swingin'est cats who ever lived, playing their instruments.
"The Beast, the seven dwarves, Thumbelina doing the rumba with Tom Thumb," the Captain commented. "We're in fairytale land? Now that's just plain silly."
"Excuse us!" Techie called to no one in particular, just hoping someone would answer.
Nobody acknowledged her presence, except for the bass playing pig, who nodded his head at her and then jerked it back, indicating that she should come on over.
She glanced at the Captain and Jonathan and then shrugged before making her way to the stage. The platform the pigs played on was surrounded by a railing and she leaned over it so she could shout over the din.
"That's a real hot little number!"
The pig gave her a wink and shouted back. "Some like it hot."
Techie cracked a smile. "Do you know 'After You Get What You Want, You Don't Want It'?"
He smiled back at her pleasantly, not looking at all grotesque like one might expect a pig to if it grinned. "No, but if you hum a few bars, we can fake it. You wanna sing?"
"Some other time, maybe," she answered with a flush. "Actually, I was wondering if you could help me?"
"Sure thing, toots."
"I'm looking for somebody. There's this girl who's a friend of mine. Her name is Al and--"
Suddenly, the door to the tavern blew open and a freezing wind rushed into the room, calling everyone's attention. The music died and the pig stared past Techie to the traveler standing in the doorway. Techie turned to look at him as well. A wounded knight, in full plate armor, staggered into the bar. He collapsed, just a few feet into the room and none of the natives made a move to rush to his side.
When nobody else went to help him, the Captain and Techie hurried over, the Captain reaching him first and dropping down on the floor next to him.
She reached for his helmet, touched it for just a moment and then drew back with a yelp. "His armor's hot."
Techie stripped off her pinafore and used it like an oven mitt, prying the faceplate open so the man underneath could breathe. By this time, Jonathan had decided to stand over them and survey the scene.
The knight was a mess under the metal; his hair was smoking, his skin was badly burned and his eyebrows were completely singed off.
He moved to speak, his dry lips cracking with the effort.
The Captain called for water and a pitcher was immediately delivered by the barkeep. Carefully, she tipped some of it into the knight's mouth and he drank greedily.
"Thank you, dear lady," he rasped, dissolving into a coughing fit. He reached out for the Captain but when she shrank away from the heat of his gauntlet, he let his arm drop. "I am Sir Sweet of the Kingdom of Low."
The Captain and Techie shared a look but managed not to burst into highly inappropriate giggles. Jonathan smothered a laugh of his own with his hand.
"What happened to you?" Techie asked, her hands hovering over him. She clearly wanted to comfort him, but his armor was still too hot to touch.
"The Dread Dragon Roberts," he replied with another cough.
This time it was Techie and the Captain who had to stifle their snickers.
"He guards a princess most fair, in the uppermost room of the castle upon Mount Von Doom--"
Three identical snorts.
"He has taken her captive. A knight must race to her rescue before it is too late." Sir Sweet's tone was distressed. "I have failed her. I have failed her highness."
A shudder passed through his body then causing Sir Sweet's armor to clatter against itself. Suddenly, nothing was funny about this.
"You, good sir," Sir Sweet reached a hand towards Jonathan. "You have aristocratic features, despite the common state of your dress. Are you of noble blood?"
"Noble blood? I think you--"
The Captain jabbed her elbow into Jonathan's shin and spoke over him. "He is. He is…uh…Sir Scare of Crow. Traveling incognito."
"You're rhyming again," Techie mumbled. The Captain shushed her.
Sir Sweet looked pleased--at least, as much as he possibly could in the middle of his death throes. "Then you, sir: I charge you with the quest that I have failed at. I pray you slay the dragon and rescue the princess. Avenge me!"
With his plot point pushed as far as it could possibly go, Sir Sweet gave one final shiver and died dramatically, tongue lolling out one side of his mouth.
"Sir Scare of Crow?" Jonathan slanted his eyes at the Captain. She gave him a little glare.
"My first instinct was Sir Squishy of the Rumbling Tummy." She gestured at the body of Sir Sweet. "You heard the man's dying delivery: a knight has to rescue the princess. A knight must be of noble blood."
He narrowed his eyes. "And what makes you think I'm going to be rescuing any princesses?"
"He did wander into the bar the second I asked the pig about Al, like the program was delivering the information in an adventure-appropriate way," Techie said logically. "And besides, who else would have a champion named Sir Sweet of Low, be guarded by the Dread Dragon Roberts and be held captive in a castle on a mountain named after Doctor Doom? It sure as hell ain't Cinderella."
Sir Sweet's armor rattled, drawing their attention back to it, but when they peered into the helmet, Sir Sweet wasn't there. Furthermore, the armor had changed: where it had been slightly tarnished and scorched before, now it gleamed like highly polished silver.
"Hey, look," the Captain picked up the chest plate, which now had a crow etched on it, "this place has a wardrobe department that delivers."
"I am not being anyone's knight in shining armor," Jonathan snapped.
The Captain and Techie looked at each other, then up at him. "How much you wanna bet?"
Half an hour later, Jonathan Crane, Sir Scare of Crow, sat astride the white steed that belonged to the now deceased Sir Sweet of Low. He wore the chest plate, gauntlets and helmet, but the legs of the suit of armor were for a man with muscles, not a scrawny fellow like him, so they were left behind. Sir Sweet's sword hung in its scabbard on his saddle and with every five steps the horse took, the helmet slammed itself shut, meaning he had to push it open again if he wanted to be heard.
The further they traveled, Jonathan noticed, the more people they saw. Farmers worked their fields, children played in front of homesteads and countless animals of all types grazed in the meadows. They crossed a stream, ignoring the troll muttering about tricky, tricky Billy goats beneath the bridge and a village became visible in the distance.
"We don't even know where this--" the helmet slammed shut, "mmassle mmmossely sss." He fought it open. "We don't know where this princess is."
"Princesses generally live in castles," the Captain sighed. "Or ivory towers."
"I see two castles--" the helmet closed again, "mmnd mmm mvry mmmr." With a grunt, he pushed it open. "I'm not running a rescue mission inside all of them."
"We won't have to." Techie adjusted the horse's rein around her hand as she kept pace with it. "I'm sure we'll to find something that will lead us to the dragon--"
She trailed off and stared straight ahead in shock. Running down the road towards them, flailing his arms wildly and screeching like a banshee, was a man. It was no wonder he was acting this way. After all, he was on fire.
He ran past them, screaming and gibbering, a human inferno.
"Something like that, for example," Techie concluded, watching him go.
"Stop, drop and roll!" the Captain shouted after the flaming peasant helpfully.
The flap of an enormous pair of wings from overhead ruffled the girls' hair and spooked Jonathan's horse. It took both the Captain and Techie to calm it down enough to keep it from running off with Jonathan stuck on its back. They all looked up to see the Dread Dragon Roberts, a massive green lizard with shiny silver scales all along its belly and gigantic claws clutching a cow that made noises that one had to assume were the bovine equivalent of "HELP! POLICE! COWNAP!"
Jonathan's eyes went buggy inside his head as the beast flew over them. It took in a breath, chest expanding, and exhaled purple flames, torching the nearest hovel. More flaming peasants dashed out of the burning building, screaming and running past. The Captain didn't bother to share any safety tips with them, though. There didn't seem much point.
"Oh, my God. That's a dragon," Techie said with a gulp that still somehow sounded reverent.
"You have a gift for stating the overwhelmingly obvious," the Captain responded, awed by the terrifying, albeit magnificent, creature.
The animal shrieked, an ear shattering call that caused Jonathan's ribcage to vibrate inside his skin and clang against his armor.
"Well, it's not voiced by Sean Connery," the Captain made a happy sound, "but it does make the Godzilla noise!"
Another hut went up in flames, the heat of the blaze drying out Jonathan's skin and making his eyes water. The girls started tugging at his legs.
"Go, Squishy! Slay the dragon!"
"You do realize I've never fought--" SLAM, "mmagon mmmre?" He irritably opened the helmet again. "I am not exactly an intimidating physical specimen!"
"You're the hero," Techie said, handing his sword up to him. Reluctantly, he pulled it from its scabbard and frowned at its lightness. It weighed less than a pound, surely it wouldn't be much use against a dragon. Next, she secured his shield to his arm, also lighter than the heaviest of cardboards. "The hero always wins."
"Except when he's Sir Sweet--" The helmet closed. "Mmssammrassin mmickin mmmphmphmmah!" He didn't bother to open it again.
"If Peter MacNicol can do it," the Captain cheered, giving the horse a hard slap on its hind flank, "so can you! Go get 'em, Squishy!"
The horse took off like a shot. It took all Jonathan's strength to keep from falling off. For the first few seconds, he was nothing but a rattling mass of clumsy limbs, hanging on for dear life, but he quickly found his rhythm and moved with the horse, instead of against it. He kept his knees tight to the animal's frame and leaned forward, the arm with the shield attached to it thrust in front of him, protecting his torso. The other arm held his sword aloft, angled so that if the dragon swept forward, it would get stabbed.
As though sensing instinctively that a new foe was suddenly on its tail, the dragon turned in midair and snarled. The cow continued to moo anxiously, kicking at the nothingness beneath it. The dragon tipped its head at Jonathan as the horse galloped closer, looking at him appraisingly for a moment.
Then, it threw its head back and shrieked again, but the sounded wavered, rising and falling in pitch oddly.
Jonathan came to the realization it was laughing at him.
He gritted his teeth and charged. In response, the dragon opened its claws--dropping the cow fifty feet where it landed in the soft hay of a thatched roof, amazingly unharmed--and flew at Jonathan like a dive bomber.
Both the horse and Jonathan seemed to lose their nerve at the exact same moment and veered off course, mere moments before they would have clashed with the dragon. Unlike Jonathan, however, the dragon had lost none of its nerve and turned to catch up with them. The makeshift knight rode for all he was worth, but it didn't matter. The dragon was faster and in just the space of a few breaths, Jonathan felt cold talons closing around him, pressing him into the horse's back more firmly.
With a thrust of its powerful wings, the dragon lifted both Jonathan and his horse off the ground. Its grip on the horse wasn't all that great and after a second, it dropped the horse. The steed landed on the same roof that the cow had and they whinnied and mooed at each other, presumably comparing traumatic dragon-related experiences.
The dragon flew higher and higher, clutching Jonathan so tightly that his chest plate dented inwards and pressed into his skin. He thrashed as much as his current predicament would allow and his helmet fell off. He tried not to watch as it fell to the ground and was flattened on impact. The technology hadn't hurt him yet--much--and every injury he'd sustained had been superficial. Hopefully…hopefully a drop from this height wouldn't kill him if it was virtual.
Taking in a fortifying breath, Jonathan drew his sword up and slapped the foot that had him in its grasp. The sword didn't feel very menacing in his hands, but the dragon let out a cry of pain in response. It blew a plume of fire at the man it held in its claws, but missed. Jonathan swung the sword again, this time gaining a little more momentum and the cry of agony the strike elicited from the giant lizard was even more dramatic.
Jonathan felt himself being pulled backwards as the dragon swung him. Back and forth, back and forth, until its talons opened and he went flying up past the dragon's face. He flew up, up, and then back down towards the open, waiting jaws of the beast. It had situated itself beneath him, ready to gobble him up.
Thinking quickly, Jonathan flung the sword straight down, the blade heading right for the dragon's gullet and prayed the laws of physics would be a little more flexible than they were in reality.
Luck was on his side and the sword shot right down the dragon's throat. It gagged and choked, grabbing its long, slender neck with its front claws. Its bright golden eyes, flecked with emerald green, bulged as it tried to breathe. Its efforts were fruitless and it fell from the sky, clawing at the air. Jonathan didn't have time to cheer at his good fortune, gravity was a much more pressing concern. As the dragon fell, so did he.
Almost in unison, both combatants reached the earth: the dragon crushing a barn beneath its immense body, and a few seconds later, Jonathan slamming into the surface of a nearby lake. It was like slamming into a concrete wall, anguish crashing into every inch of his skin, pins and needles driving into every muscle. His breath was stolen from him, his lungs felt like they'd been crushed on impact and when he unconsciously tried to catch a mouthful of air, a mouthful of water was his reward.
The lake was freezing cold and Jonathan was sure he was going to die. His limbs went numb, his armor--far too heavy to swim with, even if he had the strength after such a water landing--dragged him down deeper. He felt light headed and--
Everything went dark.
Jonathan sputtered, flapping his hands and slapping at whoever was touching him. He coughed up several ounces of water and then took a breath, deep as he dared. Someone helped him to sit up and pried his chest plate off. He could breathe much more freely once that was done and he finally opened his eyes. The Captain and Techie both stood over him, and he was encircled by scorched villagers, some of them still smoking.
"Jonathan, you're alive!"
"Oh, thank God!"
The peasants cheered as he was dragged to his feet, the girls standing on either side of him and serving as his crutches.
"Listen well, peasants! Jonathan, Sir Scare of Crow, son of Crane, hath slew the dragon!"
"Slain," the Captain corrected.
"Shut up," Techie said from the corner of her mouth before she continued addressing the peasants. "The dragon is no more!"
"It has ceased to be!" the Captain added with a giggle.
"It is an ex-dragon!"
Jonathan groaned. The peasants hoisted him up on their shoulders, cheering for Sir Scare of Crow. He was in no condition to fight his way free from the adoring masses, so he let it happen.
After having sufficient time to recover and being fed by the grateful peasants, Jonathan, the Captain and Techie started out again, this time each of them on a horse supplied by the villagers. The steed of Sir Sweet was left in the inn's stable with the cow--who was seemingly in shock--to live out the remainder of his days. The road was long and it took many hours of travel to make it to the glittering palace at the base of Mount Von Doom, but they finally made it. Curiously, the sun stayed in the exact same position the entire time, placing the estimated time of day as being somewhere around noon.
On the way to the palace, they passed the short, squat gray castle, ancient, grown over with vines as well as the ivory tower, which had a long golden braid hanging from its single window.
The palace was immense, unguarded and empty, as the Captain, Jonathan and Techie dismounted and entered it, the grand staircase stretching before them. They ascended--climbing the vast number of stairs that seemed to go on forever--and finally reached the highest point in the castle, all of them quite out of breath. The door to the highest tower room was painted white, jewel encrusted and it didn't creak when Jonathan turned the handle and pushed it in.
The room was flooded with sunlight, the walls covered with gloriously intricate stained glass windows. In the very center of the stained glass was a plain window and standing in the middle of it stood a young woman with her back to them, dressed in fine ivory silk, her long red hair trailing down her back.
They looked at each other, frowning. The girl at the window was most definitely not Al.
She turned and graced them with a smile, but then her expression changed to one of puzzlement. She looked Jonathan up and down and became distressed.
"Oh!" The princess exclaimed, her hands pressed against her cheeks in a silent film star's show of surprise. "You're not Prince Charming."
"Not even close," he retorted. "Are you the princess who was in the dragon's keep?"
Her eyebrows knit together. "Oh, no. I'm guarded by the kraken in the lake at the base of Mount Doom."
"We're looking for the princess who was guarded by the dragon."
"He killed it," the Captain said proudly, cuffing Jonathan on the shoulder affectionately, "so he could rescue his lady fair."
Jonathan glared at the Captain but the princess didn't notice.
"I'm sorry," she replied, genuinely apologetic, "but your princess is in another castle."
Half an hour after leaving the glittering palace, they found themselves standing before the rotting vine covered castle. The doors were grown over as well, so they had to fight the greenery to get through.
"This seems vaguely familiar," Techie said thoughtfully, tugging at some of the vines. "But I can't remember what it's from."
"This would be easier if we had something long and pokey." The Captain grunted, using all her weight to pull the vines taut until they snapped.
"Oh, gosh golly gee whiz, I am so sorry I lost my sword in a dragon's belly," Jonathan retorted, shoving some of the plants out of the way.
With a clatter, a skeleton fell from above, dislodged by their heave-ho-ing and landed in the dust. It wore armor and was accompanied by a rusted sword.
The Captain's eyebrows rose. "Well, that's handy."
Techie had stopped working at the vines and stared at the misshapen corpse in horror the moment it hit the ground. "Captain, get away from the castle."
She stepped away and Jonathan followed suit, knowing that Techie probably had a very good reason to sound so anxious.
"Not you, Squishy," she instructed, "you pick up the sword and get to chopping."
He goggled at her. "Why? Why only me?"
"We can't," Techie said. "I know this story. Only a man can enter this castle. If we try…" she drew her finger across her throat and made a comical noise.
"Get to work. We'll go water the horses." She gave him a shove towards the castle, then picked up the sword and forced it into his hand. After this, she grabbed the Captain's hand and started tugging her away. "Be careful."
"I don't remember any story with a princess who could only be rescued by a man," the Captain said as she was led down the forest path, away from Jonathan and the castle, towards the tree where the horses were tied.
"I censored the plot a little for easier consumption," Techie hissed under her breath.
Techie pulled the Captain a little more urgently. "She can only be rescued by her true love."
Left alone, Jonathan hacked and slashed at the vines covering the entrance to the castle with reckless abandon. He wasn't nearly as sore as he probably should have been after tangling with that dragon and the physical exertion felt good. Working out all his frustrations with this whole crazy affair was therapeutic and in a very short time, he cleared the doorway. There was more growth to fight through beyond the first layer and he got tangled at least half a dozen times before he pushed his way through to the courtyard.
Spitting leaves, he made it into the wide open space and found dozens of castle occupants lying on the ground, apparently dead. He frowned. That didn't make sense. The growth over the castle was the result of many years, but these corpses were fresh.
Puzzled, he made his way across the square, past a fountain that was no longer running, past another dozen bodies and through another layer of bottle green creepers. He was sweating by the time he struggled into the castle itself. The kitchens were also full of carcasses, the hallways, the armory, even the throne room, where the king and queen still sat upon their thrones, slumped as though the victims of poison.
He cut a swath through three more walls of lush growth and stumbled past a crumpled old woman into a bedchamber. The room was white, airy and well lit. Silver vanity tables and marvelous cherry wood furniture inlaid with abalone were scattered in the space. At the very center of the room, beneath a canopy of sheer white fabric, laid out on a king sized bed, was Al. Her hair--long and wavy, but still in its customary shades of black and purple--spread out on her pillow and she wore a dress of lavender blue, the only spot of color in the otherwise pallid room.
Every ounce of tension in Jonathan's frame dissolved and he let his sword arm drop to his side. He cast his eyes heavenward, remembered he was an atheist with no one to complain to and then looked back at his henchgirl.
"Sleeping Beauty." He shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead in annoyance. "You must be joking."
He knew good and well what requirements were to end this particular story, but he wasn't exactly looking forward to fulfilling them. He dawdled a bit, walking to her side as slowly as he possibly could while still actually moving and then sat down next to her on the bed.
There must be some way around the whole kiss clause…
He grabbed her by the shoulder and shook. "Al! We brought home gooey fries!"
She didn't stir.
He shook harder. "Al, Techie and Captain are dead."
"Al! My life is in peril!"
Great. Just great.
"Uncooperative, stubborn--" he leaned forward, scrunching his eyes closed, "insufferable woman."
Her skin was cold as marble as he pressed his lips to hers, and he found they fit together a bit too perfectly for his liking. He held his position until some warmth crept back into her flesh and then he pulled away to watch her.
Her cheeks warmed, a blush infusing the pale with a rosy glow. Her chest moved as she pulled in breath and her eyes opened slowly, dazedly. Al blinked a few times, waiting for her vision to clear and for things to come into focus.
"Jonathan?" she whispered before her lips stretched into a smile. "My hero."
With a blinding flash of light, Jonathan found himself back inside Lexcorp's laboratory. He lurched away from the girls, who also came out of stasis and staggered away from the ANI device.
"Wow," the Captain breathed, holding her forehead. "What a rush."
"I feel sick," Techie muttered, leaning over and bracing her hands on her knees.
"I'm dizzy," Al added, leaning heavily on one of the tables--mercifully not the one that held the ANI device.
Jonathan didn't complain, though his head felt like its top was about to come off and his stomach rolled around inside his gut like it was trying to make an escape, he just put as much distance between him and the ANI device as possible.
"That thing is going to kill somebody," he mumbled, rubbing at his throat with one hand.
"Side effects," the Captain replied, waving a hand, "it's just a beta model. They'll get the kinks worked out before they release it to the public."
Jonathan picked up the nearest heavy object--he had no idea what it was, it didn't matter--and started for the ANI device. "We should destroy it."
Inexplicably, all three girls leapt in front of it, protectively. "Don't you dare! It's worth too much!"
"We could have been stuck in stasis like that forever," he grumbled, tossing his bludgeoning weapon aside.
Techie grew thoughtful. "Stuck in a storybook…forever."
Al caught on first and spun on her heel, avoiding touching the ANI device as she sifted through the cartridges on the table beside it. "Who do we know who would like that sort of fate?"
The Captain stripped off her jacket and lunged for the device, wrapping it up tightly without touching it once.
"What are you doing?"
"It's too dangerous to leave this thing lying around where just any old body might try to steal it--"
He crossed his arms over his chest. "Oh, so bringing it home is logical?"
"No, no. We're not bringing it home," the Captain said with a disturbing twinkle in her eye. "We're donating it."
"I suppose it's going to live on a farm with lots of rabbits to chase and plenty of room to play," he responded sullenly.
Jervis Tetch awoke in his hideout the next morning to find a box, tied with ribbons of various colors and a long winded note tacked to the top detailing the technical specifications of the items inside it.
Inside the box, beneath the carefully bundled up ANI device, under all the blueprints and documentation the girls had been able to find on the machine was an adventure cartridge.
Alice in Wonderland.
A/N: And there you have it, the end. This ending is actually what inspired the writing of this story in the first place, oh so long ago.
This chapter was another referencapalooza, just like the last was, so major points to everyone who can name three or more. (If you don't know them all and are curious, feel free to ask and I'll tell you!) Also, I encourage you all to look up The Three Little Bops over on YouTube. It was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid.
Thanks for reading, kiddos! Try the veal, tip your waitress and make sure it's more than twenty percent if you want to get on the Captain's good side.
Also, you should all go see the catverse website (catverse. com) for some exciting news! Massive, important, oh my gosh amazing crazyawesomeholycrap NEWS!