A/N: An immense apology to all those who have been waiting for me to continue this story. I have broken my own promise and begun on another fanfiction in another fandom. I am still working on this one since the other is on it's way to being complete. I have now started summer break, so hopefully that will lend me some time to finish this up, or get a good head start on it. Thank goodness for three weeks no school. Let me tell you, art school takes up a good amount of time. Please enjoy!
Chapter X: Red Crossing
Alice and Tarrant walked from Marmoreal after their fairfarren lunch with their friends. Mirana hugged Alice close before she left and wished her a smooth trip, though she knew it would be anything but. She told Tarrant to take care of her and he promised to protect her with his life. He had been given a shorter sword from the royal battalion to help in just that.
Neither one of them had more than a small bag for a change of clothes, some items to trade if needed, some upelkuchen and a vile of pishalver each. Both had their top hats on and Tarrant had a large smile on his face. Every so often Tarrant would point out a spot of Underland history that may have seemed of no consequence to anyone from her world, but would mean the world to maybe a few in this one.
By nightfall they had made it to a small inn toward the outer lines of the Red Desert. Tarrant had explained that the whole area had been deserted during the full reign of Iracebeth and Underlanders were finally taking back their property. He walked into the inn with Alice glued to his side.
A young woman with vibrant pink hair brushed off a few talking mice from the counter and smiled toward the new customers, "Hello there, you need a room for the night?"
"I think a room is exactly what the cat ordered," Tarrant chuckled to himself and pulled Alice to his side, "Something with two beds, if you don't mind."
The woman began to look for their room key in a drawer filled to the brim with different sized and colored keys. Her eyes fluttered from Tarrant to the woman beside him and tilted her head a little to fight her memories for the picture of the girl in front of her. Her hand suddenly stopped its search of their key and pointed directly towards Alice's face.
"It's you!" she shouted which made both Alice and Tarrant jump a little at the unexpected verbal explosion.
"Beg your pardon?" Alice asked with a hand over her rapidly beating heart.
"Beg me for nothing!" she frowned and put her hand back down. She looked away from Alice and put all her focus into the search for their room key once again, "So you're back again, huh? I thought all those whispers of our champion's return were just rumors. Sure took her time getting back here last time after all."
"I would advise very highly not to bring Time into the discussion," Tarrant said with a pointed finger and then frowned at the woman, "Alice is not at fault for her late return time."
"Not at fault?" the woman asked and pulled a large key out of the drawer and slammed it on the counter top with a loud clang. She looked directly at Alice in the eyes, "If you had been a few dozen Brilligs earlier, my parents would still be running this inn. They would still be alive."
Alice's eyes widened a little at the thought and opened her mouth to apologize.
"Words don't bring back the dead, puppet," the inn keeper hissed.
"Neither does venom, lass," Tarrant growled in his brogue from behind Alice. He slipped his hand over the key and stared down the woman in front of him, "She came back. She slew the jabberwocky. We all lost a bit of somthin' under the Bluddy Behg Hid. I be thankful with wha' I 'ave."
The woman didn't say anything more and turned her head from them, "The room is free for the night for the Champion of Underland from the Over world."
"Come Alice," Tarrant turned from the counter with key in hand. When he didn't feel her comforting presence at his side he stopped and turned back to her, "Alice?"
Alice stayed in front of the counter even though the inn keeper hadn't turned back to look at her. Alice took a deep breath and looked at the young woman who she realized only looked to be in her late teen years. Of course in Underland that didn't mean too much, but since she had her parents she probably didn't want or have a need to grow much older. Now she had almost too much growing to do.
"What's your name?" Alice asked quietly to the woman in front of her.
She hesitated at first and looked from Alice to a very lively looking spot on the wall. She cleared her throat and then sighed out, "Criksus."
Alice smiled, "I like it."
"What should you know Overworlder?"
"You're right, not much," Alice shook her head and sighed, "That's why I am learning all I can. And you have taught me something else, so I thank you."
"What did I teach you?" she asked a little uncertain and let her arms hang at her sides while she turned toward Alice.
"Some will be thankful, some will be resentful and some will be content," Alice paused, "Some of us are contradictions to ourselves, but we all fight the same battle to survive through our circumstances… to sometimes find ourselves."
"What is that supposed to mean?" she asked.
"Possibly nothing, I do seem to talk in riddles at times," Alice still smiled at Criksus, "We all need another version of ourselves to face that we haven't met before. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Criksus said slowly, still unsure what she had done for her.
"I am sorry for your parent's passing," Alice said in all sincerity as she remembered the pain she felt when she first lost her father. She put her hand on the counter as if in a peace offering. When Criksus didn't move toward her she sighed heavily, "Have a good evening."
Alice turned from the counter and walked toward Tarrant. He looked her in the eyes with a bit of pride on how she handled herself. He put an arm around her shoulders and guided her down toward the room that they were given for the night.
Criksus looked down at the counter where Alice's hand was. She saw a few crystals that were pretty valuable since they hadn't been seen since before Iracebeth took the throne. She picked up the small jewels and looked toward the hallway that Champion Alice and her companion walked down.
Later that night, Alice looked out the large window at the side of the room that they were given. The room was actually split into two by a wall partition. Alice had mixed feelings about the wall; happy it was there for propriety's sake, but unhappy that it disconnected her from her best friend. Tarrant was on the other side of the thin wall lost in sleep and dreams of his own design. Alice slightly envied him for the way his body fell into sleep. She guessed that he trained it to fall asleep when he could since he never really knew when he could sleep in peace again during the Red Queen's rule. Her mind was far from that point despite the long trek they had to make through the Red Desert the next day.
She sighed and looked out into the desert and then at her own reflection in the glass, "Who in the world am I?"
Criksus did open her eyes to a new view of herself. Mirana had warned her of opposition, but she was not ready to face the consequences of being dreadfully late to the party that Underland had set for her. So many of the Underland inhabitants had been so grateful to her that she never really saw the other half of the situation. There were others out in this world that don't and possibly never will have a positive outlook on their champion. That will be something she will have to address once she ascended to the throne. She didn't want any of her subjects to be unhappy with their ruler. Not after Iracebeth. They deserved better than that.
"I will have to find Queen Alice," she said to her reflection, "She is in there somewhere. And she will be better than the Champion Alice. She will never be late again."
"And here, Alice, is where we will begin our trek over the desert and to Salzen Grum," Tarrant announced and gestured to the wide expanse of the red sands. He smiled to himself and looked down at her, "Are you quite ready for it?"
"I have been for quite a while now, I just never really knew it," she smiled back at him and tapped at the top of her hat to make sure that she didn't lose her new hat while they made their way through. She took his hand in hers and took a few steps forward before she was surprised by a large face appearing in front of her. She stumbled backward and fell back into Tarrant's chest.
"Good morning, everyone," Chessur greeted and let the rest of his body appear after his face.
Alice smiled up at him, "Good morning, Chess."
Tarrant helped Alice back up on her feet and narrowed his eyes at the floating feline, "What do we owe this surprise visit for?"
"Can't I help the champion in her quest my own way?" he questioned as he floated around Tarrant's head and then settled on top of Alice's hat still upon her head.
"What have you got up your sleeve, Chess?" she asked and looked up as if she could see him through the brim.
"No sleeves, love," he reminded her and floated upside down in front of her face, "The Red Desert plays many tricks on those who don't know much of it. I have some tricks of my own to combat them."
"Bayard didn't have much trouble when I came to get Tarrant out," she explained.
"Ah, but he was under the 'service' of the Red Queen," he reminded her, "She controlled it to a point. Now that she is gone, it has gone back to its wild ways. I have heard of it swallowing a large boragrove within a full rotation of a clock face."
"And what secrets did you find Chess?" Tarrant asked and folded his arms over his chest to watch the evaporating cat.
Chessur's face stretched out into a larger smile, "You will have to wait and see."
"Okay Chess," Alice caught his attention, "Teach us then."
"My pleasure," Chessur floated to the beginning of the red sand where a storm immediately blew. He pointed to the ground where a thick piece of what looked like white ribbon laid innocently on the ground. He grinned as he disappeared all bit his grin, "Just follow the ribbon and you will be fine."
Alice turned to Tarrant who nodded to her. He grabbed her hand once again and they both walked into the sand storm and along the ribbon.
For what felt like hours Alice and Tarrant were pummeled by high winds and bouts of horrible think sand banks. Both of them tried their best to keep an eye on the white ribbon beneath their feet and would hear Chessur's voice if they strayed too far from the path he had found for them. They kept a hard grasp on one another's hand to make sure even if they lost their way, they would not lose one another. Alice was surprised that their hats had stayed on their heads for so long during the punishing winds.
As if he heard her unasked question Tarrant yelled through the winds, "My own bit of talent to fit it just so."
He patted the top of his own hat to demonstrate. She laughed a little at the motion. Something you should never do during a sand storm should you upset the desert.
A large swell of wind and sand came toward them and immediately swallowed Alice and tore her from Tarrant's grip. He fell to the ground, able to still see the ribbon, but could not see a spot of blue from Alice's hat or dress.
"Alice!" he yelled through the blinding sands.
"Don't tell me you have lost her already," Chessur said as he wrapped himself around Tarrant's collar and reappeared.
"Alice! Dear Alice!" he yelled into the sands frantically. He began to step off of the ribbon when Chess pushed a few of his claws into his shoulder.
"Stay on the ribbon," Chessur reminded him.
"And let her be lost to the Red Desert?" Tarrant asked as he eyes began to change, "Never."
"She is being tested," Chessur reassured him, "It's time you test yourself and be patient for her return."
Tarrant's eyes turned back to his green and sighed, "As I always have been patient."
He sat where he was on the white ribbon. He would wait for her. He would keep a position on the ribbon and be her beacon out of the storm.
"I just hope Time doesn't move too slowly this go around."
The tornado of sand and wind finally dropped Alice in a section of the desert she was sure was far from Tarrant and immensely less turbulent. She patted down her dress and brushed off what she could off of her top hat. She looked around her surroundings and didn't see any landmarks or any hint of a direction that she should take.
She cupped her hands around her mouth and began to call out, "Tarrant! Tarrant, can you hear me? Chess?"
She waited a moment for an answer, but didn't hear anything back. She sighed and looked around once more, "Well Alice, it seems as if you have gotten lost once again."
"You're always lost aren't you?"
Alice spun in her spot as she heard the voice. With no one around for what looked like miles she furrowed her brows, "Hello?"
"Always dreaming, always searching for something other than what you have. Things that you should be grateful for."
She suddenly remembered that voice and turned to her left where a large sand dune shaped itself to the likeness of someone back home.
"Will you please wake up out of your day dream and act civilized?" a dune to her left shaped itself like that of Lady Ascot.
"I do act civilized," she rebutted with a scoff, "As much as you know on the subject, I would think that-"
"Keep your temper in check, will you little sister?" another dune shot up in the likeness of Margaret.
"How did you get here?" she asked a little uneasy at the copies.
"Travel of course," a Lord Ascot copy promptly brushed out his sand beard with a wisp of wind, "The company is jumping in leaps and bounds."
"No thanks to a female such as yourself," Lady Ascot added.
"I made more progress for father's company than any man!" she growled and balled up her fist.
"If you don't straighten up Alice…" her mother started and turned to her sister.
"We can't be burdened by you forever," the sand Margaret sighed, "We have no use of a little girl who only wants to daydream."
Alice looked down at herself and saw the same blue dress and white apron she wore on her first trip to Underland. She gasped and looked at the now towering dunes over her as if she was still only five years old.
"Marry someone with reputation!" her mother yelled.
"Stop hoping for any better. There is nothing better than this," Margaret made a sand baby appear in her arms.
"Become the lady that you were born to be," Lady Ascot rolled her head to the side as if to look her over.
Lord Ascot laughed a little to himself, "No more of this business nonsense."
"You are no queen, Alice. Listen, or we will leave you," her mother sighed.
"Just like you left us."
"I didn't leave you like this!" she yelled with her five year old voice straining.
"Leaving is leaving, Alice!" her mother added.
"And soon he will leave you as well," Margaret said slowly.
Alice's eyes shot open and she looked up at the rotating dunes, "What?"
"Your hatter. He will leave you as well one day. Everyone does."
"No!" she yelled and grabbed the sides of her head. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the voices that surrounded her. She thought back to her adventures and what she had been through. Vibrant green eyes cut through the fog in her mind and captured her attention. They slowly turned to blue and purple in a swirl that she has become entranced by.
'I will never leave you, Alice… I never have…'
"Tarrant," she whispered to herself and the sands leaned over to hear her better.
"What was that Alice? Ready to give up on your silly adventure?" Lady Ascot looked down her nose at her.
"Come home, dear," her mother asked and held out a hand toward her.
"Never," she opened her eyes and found herself the right proper Alice size and age. She patted the top of her hat and raised her chin to the sand copies, "Most of you had severed connections with me when I was in England. You never understood me. You left me long ago. And though I love you so dearly, my family and dear friend…"
She promptly ignored the copy of the Lady Ascot, "…I must do this for myself. Something for myself for once. I will always love you, but you are wrong about one thing."
"And what's that, dear?"
"He will never leave me. When all else may doubt, he will be the one who believes," she smiled, "And you don't hold any power over me anymore. I am my own."
The sands shifted and the copies of her mother, sister, business partner and his wife all crumbled into the desert. Alice closed her eyes and took a large breath.
"Now," she opened them again, "Let's find that Hatter and Cheshire cat."
She tried to listen for anything when she heard it.
"Tarrant," she smiled and picked her feet from the sand that had sucked them in. She followed the sound until she found a small ball of a sand storm around Tarrant. She shook her head in a little bit of amusement, "Is that all we were stuck in?"
She walked to the ball of sand and looked at the wall that had shrouded her two friends inside. She put a finger to her lips in thought and then tapped the wall of sand as if tapping a person on the shoulder. She cleared her throat and took a short breath.
"If you don't mind terribly much, Red Desert of Salzen Grum, I have seen through your guise and would like very much if you release my friends. I have played your game and won. It is time to collect my prize."
The wind groaned as if realizing her logic and began to slow until it stopped all together. As the sand dropped to the ground a surprised Tarrant and Chessur stood and looked at the unscathed Alice staring back at them.
"How did you do that, Alice?" Tarrant asked and looked at the calm red sand that now surrounded them.
"I stood up to my own fears that were blinding me," she held out a hand to him which he took quickly. Chessure floated on behind them the rest of the walk until they reached the castle that had belonged to the Red Queen. He began to float just outside the rusting gate's hinges.
"Too much had taken place here," he drew with his claw in the air, "I think I will wait here for you two."
"Suit yourself," Alice shrugged and walked in with Tarrant not far behind with a hand over the sword he had borrowed from the knights of the White Queen. Alice stepped into the large throne room and remembered it being much smaller. Although the last time she was in it, she was easily twice her size. She took count of the doors and walked toward the second from the left, "Nivens said that this one should be her study."
"As long as we get out of here soon," Tarrant frowned and felt a bit of black seep into the colors of his eyes. He still remembered all that was endured in the castle walls. Not just himself, but by all inhabitants of Underland.
Alice found the office and then pulled long rolled tubes from a corner container. She unrolled a few dozen that were a mixture of maps and posters. Iracebeth was anything but humble, that was sure. She pulled out a few smaller rolls and finally found the one she was looking for. Her heart skipped a beat as her hand ran over the details of the other side of the checker board. A pull was felt much like when she found herself drawn to Tarrant.
"Tarrant?" she asked in a whisper.
He quickly walked to her side and looked at the map laid out in front of them.
"I know this place… but it's as if I had never been," Alice furrowed her brows and looked up at him. He reached down and wrapped the map up with a few others.
"I believe then that tea would be a good way to right the mind," he smiled one of his grins, "Don't you agree, Alice?"
She giggled a little to herself and nodded, "That is the absolute truth. Let's gather Chess and we can discuss this further."