Guys, I am so sorry for the long wait for this, but this summer-good lord. Job hunting, more school classes, and now my kids are out of school. (Sigh) This is no longer a lark. Forgive me, my friends, but I have to go on hiatus for a while.


But it will be a while before I can get another chapter up. Sorry, folks.

Chapter 33

Alice observed the three men before her in her hospital room. One was Calvin, an Ace of Spades and part of the Royal Guard; now her personal bodyguard while Hatter was gone in Tulgey Wood. The other was King Jack, there to discuss strategy and planning with Alice and to coordinate any supplies she might need for the Armies. And the other was-

"I still do not think it wise to let some Oyster girl, some common nobody, to lead the Armies of Wonderland," Dodo growled.

"Do not insult the lady in my presence," Calvin said in a dangerous tone, surprising Alice a bit. He seemed like such an easy-going person when she'd met him earlier. Best to nip any anger management issues in the bud right now.

"The King of Clubs agreed to sign over control to her after he saw her tactical prowess," Jack said, his voice straining to keep steady and calm. Dodo seemed to be absolutely spoiling for a fight, and for the life of the Heart, he couldn't figure out why. "We must trust his judgement."

"Thanks for the endorsement, Jack, but I've got this," Alice said. She turned a steely gaze to the Librarian. "I don't really think it wise to let a psychotically paranoid, hair-trigger gunman into a hospital where he might be threatened by people looking at him too much," she said sweetly. "After all, when you first met me in the Library, when I was completely unarmed and needed help, instead of peaceful explanations and negotiation, which would have gotten you the Stone of Wonderland with almost no trouble at all, you tried to shoot me."

Calvin instantly moved between Dodo and Alice, his hand reaching for his own gun. "You did what to my lady?"

The King of Hearts was in a similar state of mind. "You tried to shoot an unarmed woman? Have you no honor at all? Or common sense?"

Dodo glared at all three of them. "Perhaps we should focus more on the present, like the issue of giving command of multiple Armies of Cards to a complete stranger on the word of a conman?"

Calvin had his gun out now. "First you insult my lady and now my King? Truly, you are a fool," he spat.

"That's enough, Calvin," Alice said, a serene smile on her face at seeing Dodo's predicament. "For all his-faults, Dodo is still knows more about Monsters and Mad Men than we do, so we need to listen to him. We need a consultant, nothing more," she said with a look at the furious man. "You will have no influence over the Armies, do you understand?"

"Your arrogance will cost us lives," Dodo snapped.

"And yours will too," Alice said with forced calm. "You can either be calm and rational about this, and leave your smart mouth and Oyster grudge at the door, or I'll have Calvin throw you out the window and I'll have others search the Library for what we need. Your choice."

Dodo took several deep breaths and sat down to one side of her bed. "As you wish, madam," he said through clenched teeth. Calvin made sure to keep an eye on the man for the rest of the meeting.

"Well, now that that's over with," Jack said with somewhat forced cheer. "Now, onto the troop placement"-

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Tulgey Wood, a different sort of meeting was held.

Dozens of Heart Army Suits surrounded the perimeter of the Wood, not to guard the traveling party, but to stop anything from coming out of the deadly forest. By the last count, more than 140 Heart Suits had braved the Wood to try and fetch the Stone of Wonderland. Every last one of them failed; at least, they failed to return alive. A few had been flung back out from deep in the Wood by something strong enough to hurl them hundreds of feet in the air for more than a mile. Needless to say, the poor men were dead on arrival.

Hatter sat atop his brown-speckled horse, patting its sides as it stood before the great forest. He kept an eye on the many Suits out of habit, still not used to being in so much-er, governmental company without feeling the urge to flee. The horse could sense his urge and was dancing in place in agitation. "Easy, girl. This won't be so bad."

"You're kidding, right?" The Nine of Clubs said in a mildly panicking tone. "The Savages Swamp alone could frighten anyone! Its nothing but miles of slime trees and black mud that can suck a man and horse down in less than three minutes, and they say its filled with some kind of tribe of shadow worshipers that might be cannibals. And then there's the Darklight River that runs through the Wood; it glows with all the Tea that's been dumped into the water supply over the years and the fish have all been driven Mad and Monstrous in it. I heard the rangers say that the creatures that drink the water have all gone Monstrous too, and the whole Wood's filled with the things. Then there's the Stone Garden with all the moving statues right outside the Bloodlock Gate of the Water and Power Plant. And last but not least, there's some kind of living vine on the Water Tower itself, some kind of last resort guardian, I think. And that was before the water got infested with Tea. Now, who knows how terrible that thing's gotten. And now we have to walk into all of it!"

"Why exactly are you here, if you don't want to be here so badly?" Hatter shot back, barely holding onto his patience with the Suit. He took a few silent breaths to get his calm back. It wasn't the Club's fault that they were stuck walking into a place considered insanely dangerous by even Wonderland's loose standards.

"No choice," the young Club grumbled from his small brown horse. He sat very uncomfortably in the saddle, clearly not used to riding. "As former Regent of Spades, I'm obligated to fill you in on the royal duties and policies and then quiz you on them as we go. Samuel would have wanted me to make sure his kingdom was in good hands. No matter how much Tea he drank," Thomas muttered.

Hatter shifted a bit uncomfortably at that. He tended to forget that the Suit was his maternal uncle's only friend, and so must still be hurting over his loss. "Right. Sorry. So, Marion, when are we set to get moving? I'd rather not be riding through this place after dark." Bad enough in daylight when we can see the monsters coming...

"Soon, sire," Marion said from atop his own grey mare. "As soon as we have proof that the Cheshire has cleared our path, we shall be on"-the shrill sound of a cell phone rang out. Everyone glanced around to find the source, only to find Robert Hamilton patting down his coat and pulling the device out. "But...but I don't have a cell phone," he said in confusion.

"All the more reason to answer it," said Marion.

Robert shook his head at Wonderland logic and flipped open the phone. "Hello?" he said.

"Robbie! Oh sugar, have you missed me?" an exuberant voice exactly like Hatter's on a sugar-high shouted over the line.

Only one thing in Wonderland could pull off a trick like that, but Robert still stammered the name. "Ch-Cheshire?" the older man said in bewilderment.

"Indeed, my good man! Now, your little show can hit the highway or whatever it is and get moving. I want my eye back sometime this century, you know. Oh, and tell that Hatter boy that I want those pieces in a hurry too. See you soon, Robbie!" The phone flashed a brilliant light and crumbled to clods of dirt in Robert's hand. The shocked man glanced around at the others. "Damn cat. I suppose that means that its time to get moving."

Hatter steeled himself as the party of six entered into the thick, ancient forest. The pieces of Magic that the Cheshire wanted, the Stone of Wonderland, the re-activation of the Water and Power Plant, and the dispersal of the Addiction's Cure; all of these had to be accomplished as soon as possible. Damn, when did I sign up for bloody Quests-R-Us?