A/N: The response to this was much more shocking to me than all else. However, I'm going to have to point out 2 things:
This is not a Wonderland story, nor is it an Alice Human Sacrifice story, sorry. It's an adventure story.
To those who read Joker, the whole one of you, I promise not to recycle elements.
To the End
The woman's knuckles clenched tight over the sword hilt. Fighting back the panic threatening to defocus his eyes and race his heart, Len backed away nice and slow until he couldn't handle it anymore. He turned and ran, snaking himself around purple trunks even as the woman behind him yelled. He didn't know what she could possibly think to shout at him, but Len figured it wouldn't do him any good.
Thicker and thicker, the violet trees swarmed up on him, but there was a fog creeping on his vision. A voice whispered in Len's ear, soft and kind like the woman he'd seen skewered—the image made him shake his head ferociously as he ran, agonized, but the motion cleared his head a little, and his maddened escape seemed far easier.
Len saw stars when his chin connected with the hard-packed earth on the forest floor. His tongue tasted blood and he spat and coughed, eyes catching the red flecks from whatever part of his mouth he'd tore open as they dropped onto the dirt. Gracelessly, Len pushed himself back up, but only managed half a step away before a heavy hand clapped down hard on his shoulder and spun him around.
While her sword was nowhere in sight, Len recognized the killer the moment he saw her. Outside the shadowed innards of the cottage, he saw her hair matched her eyes and she was decked in light, leathery armor with strategically placed metal plates. She looked more like a soldier than a psychopath, but Len was still very much afraid and lurched his shoulder from her grasp to end up back on the ground. Stumbling around like a fool had never been Len's intention, but whether or not he was as agile as a dancer wouldn't save his life.
"Quickly," the woman commanded and reached for his collar. Len flailed, but it didn't stop her from wrenching him back to his feet. "We need to get back to the path—the Demon can't lure us into its trap."
Len didn't argue, not when he could feel the raw power in the woman's tight grip, and he allowed himself to be dragged back through the woods. Again, a haze was settling over his vision and girlish whispers ghosted into his ears, beginning to sound like a song. He shook his head again and the voice quieted a fraction, but remained undeterred as it buzzed through his brain.
The cottage in the little clearing came back into view with the sound of the babbling red river. Like a switch, the melodious whispering came to a stop. He hadn't realized how hard his heart had been beating, but with the voice gone he could feel its rapid pace—and it hurt. If he didn't know better, he'd think he was dying, but his head was clearing and his heart rate was decreasing back to the norm until he could breathe again.
Leather gloved fingers released his collar and Len remembered the brown-eyed woman, but his eyes flashed to the motionless body of the blue-dressed girl outside her home's door. His circumstances flew by him and he cringed. Everything hurt. He couldn't afford to run again, and even if he did, the woman would no doubt recapture him. He was going to die here, silenced by a swing of metal backed by dauntless strength. His knees gave out and Len hit the ground with a shuddering gasp. Shivering in his dripping clothes, stained red with water and blood spray, he must've looked a wreck.
The plates on the woman's armor clanked musically, like a low chime, as she moved to stand in front of him. He could see the sword's sheath and the fingers of her empty hands, but he didn't dare look up. He didn't want to see her face.
It was too bad, though, and just a little strange, when she crouched down and looked him right in the eye. "Are you hurt?"
And that, well, that was a lot strange. "W-what?"
She reached a hand out and wiped at his face. The brown leather seemed darker and had a wet shine when she pulled back and Len realized it was his own blood. "Is this wound only superficial?"
The woman's eyebrows shot down like arrows. Practically growling, she spat, "Are you trying to make me angry? First you run, you ungrateful child, and now you're being evasive!"
Startled by the shift in attitude, Len tumbled back. He was pretty sure the ground and himself were becoming quite intimate, but it was the least of his concerns. "What are you talking about?" he managed to ask through the cacophony of alarms and questions clouding his thoughts.
Looking quite unimpressed but satisfied for some reason, the woman stood up. "You're lucky you're still alive, kid. You almost fell into that sociopath's trap, first, and then you practically put yourself on a platter for the Demon. Didn't anyone tell you that straying from the stone paths is a surefire way to get killed out in these woods?" Sounding more like an angry mother than a senseless killer, the woman stepped away and began to pace. Len had seen his own mother perform this ritual more than once, usually after a work-related incident or a pissing match with Rin—and the memories came back at record speed.
Before Len could even think of making a break for it to find this stupid Master the corpse of a girl had preached of, the woman's eyes were back on his in a flash. "I'm responsible for you now, boy. I am Meiko Rouge, knight of Queen Alice dispatched directly from the Dymuno capital itself. I will escort you to the capital and its safety."
A knight? A knight! Len stared at the woman, Meiko, and didn't understand. Visions of knights from fiction and history were always gallant warriors with blades locked in combat for honor and their homes, not wandering figures in red-soaked landscapes with penchants for stabbing young women. "Knights aren't murderers!"
Eyes going wide, Meiko's bravado faded until she was staring blankly at him. Len gawked; she was confused! Of all the gall, Len found himself growing a little angry.
Slowly, recognition sharpened the woman's gaze and she turned her head to focus on the body. "You're telling me you hadn't heard? I figured news of the Guard's murder would have spread to every corner of the kingdom by now.
"Mikaela Harvii was sentenced to the sinner's Red Swamp for her crimes in the city of Marwolaeth. She slipped her leash and murdered the Guard stationed by Her Majesty. It was reported by an anonymous source that she took up residence in the Guard's hideaway, and it would seem to be the truth, as I found her here."
Memories of the charred man dying on the bamboo shoot came to mind, rasping a warning of a Guard. Len wasn't sure what could have been more frightening: this Guard that sounded more like a prison warden over the swamp, or the strength the small girl had packed in her in order to take it out.
"She would have died, anyway," Meiko finished. "If I hadn't eliminated her by the Queen's orders, she would have lost to her curiosity and wandered off the path," she nudged her chin at the stone steps beneath them and Len noticed several branching off from the cottage clearing, including one that seemed to trace the red river. He'd walked the stone path without even noticing. "Maybe she'd have even fallen to one of the tricks of the swamp. It's a place of sin and death, boy."
Meiko crossed over to the pile of laundry the girl, Mikaela, had dropped in her life's last moment and pulled out a gray, stiff arm. She made a disgruntled sound and pulled a black band off one of the frozen fingers. "This is the Guard's ring. Even if I didn't know what Lady Harvii looked like, this is proof enough of her treachery."
Len was silent as the knight rolled the black ring between her fingers like a coin. After she exhaled a weary sigh, he asked, "What did she do in the first place?"
"...Another time, perhaps. I will tell you one thing, though. If I hadn't been lying in wait to cut her down, you would've been in her next load of laundry."
A new chill crept over Len's skin that had nothing to do with the night air and his wet clothes.
Meiko tossed the ring at him suddenly with only the slightest of warnings (he'd barely caught it and definitely would've missed it if she hadn't said anything) and began sifting through Mikaela's clothes, dumping the scattered parts of the Guard into a separate pile. She broke into a triumphant grin a moment later. "I knew Lady Harvii couldn't have collected all these clothes herself! Some of these are the Guard's." Watching him like a hawk, she tossed a few articles at him—a sandy long shirt with dark, dark brown pants that couldn't have been made out of anything synthetic. "They're a tad big, but they're better than the strange stuff you're wearing. Hurry and change so we can get out of here. Wonderland Woods is never a pleasant place to be for very long, and I'd like to leave tonight."
Len had several protests on the tip of his tongue (trekking through the forest is impossible! these clothes have been handled by a murderer and there are dead man germs on them!), but he remembered who had the most likely odds of winning a fight in this place. While no longer shaking in his soggy sneakers at the sight of her, Meiko had killed another person without remorse, the image burned into the back of his eyelids. Pulling himself to his feet after such a long rest on the ground was painful, but he shambled to the cottage door. He caught Meiko's expression before he disappeared inside, a little confused and a bit amused, but she didn't say anything as he retreated.
The inside of the cottage was fairly dark and Len bumped into a piece of heavy furniture and nearly tripped again on a pair of boots. After calming himself down when he had the stray thought there could be more lethal secrets in the shadows, he managed to change without problem. He even kicked his old sneakers and socks off and pulled on the foreign boots. They were bulky and would do better with socks, but his red-stained ones would do nothing good for him until they dried. Finally stumbling through the cottage door, clothes balled up in his hands, he saw Meiko leaning against the door frame and he jumped.
"Before we leave," she said, eyes narrowed, hand held out. Without thinking, Len dropped the black ring in her hand after a struggle of keeping his clothes from raining to the ground. "...I suppose that works, too, but I was going to say that before we leave, I really should know what you're doing out here, boy."
"My name is Len," he corrected her with only a tinge of indignation on his voice. The way she was addressing him sounded condescending and it reminded him too much of upperclassmen that were too high off drugs and their own egos to do anything else but pick on him.
"Len, then," Meiko amended. "What in the world could you possibly be doing out this close to the swamp? It's a prison ground, and if you hadn't quite noticed, it's dangerous. As far as I know, only Lady Harvii has ever escaped the Guard's torment, but if you, too, are a prisoner off the leash then I will execute you right here and now."
Though he sword was still absent from her hand, Len didn't doubt Meiko's words. "I promise you, ma'am, I'm definitely not a prisoner. I'm just looking for my sister."
The knight's expression softened and Len was surprised how easy it was to get the woman to sympathize. "To lose someone in the Purple Forest is quite an affair."
Len shuffled in his new boots. "About that...I'm not even sure if she's here."
Meiko stared at him with something like pity and pride mixed into one, but then she smiled at him, something easy and confident. "Might as well get you back to the capital. It's a big place, maybe you'll find something out. Come on, down that way."
Len hesitated. He might have shed his wet things, but physically he was at his limit. Grimacing, Len lurched forward toward the line of stones Meiko had pointed out. When the knight entered the cottage instead of following him, he stared incredulously at the dark entry way.
She returned momentarily, though, with two thick brown satchels, one over her shoulder and the other belted around her waist. The black ring disappeared into one of them and Meiko held her hand out again. "Your clothes?" Gratefully, he placed his clothes in her care. After stowing them into the shoulder satchel, she flipped open the one at her hip. From its confines she pulled out a little blue fruit and pulled it apart as if the thing came natural cracked down the middle. "Eat this, you'll feel better. It's the food of choice for most travelers, but don't let it replace real rest and food. It's not grown to do that."
Thoughtfully, he turned the half of the pulpy fruit over and then sniffed it experimentally—it smelled like one of Rin's perfume bottles, a gift from one of her admirer's that she wore a grand total of maybe once because its fragrance was so strong even their parents complained. Len took a tentative bite from the side of the fruit after he saw Meiko do the same and found it rather tasteless. Almost immediately, he felt like he'd been shot up with adrenaline, or maybe even a blast of well-brewed coffee, but what he noticed most were the dull pains of his legs and weary joints. They'd lessened enough to be ignored and Len took another bite, a greater mouthful, and he could have melted to the ground.
"Half a fruit will give you a few good hours, but I know there's a correspondent of Her Majesty with a manor house off the way we're going—it's built on the same stones as the path, so it's safe from the Demon's influence. I'd been asked to investigate Lady Conchita as well, anyway, due to her sudden lack of correspondence." Meiko explained. "We'll definitely make it there before you collapse and if she's still an ally to the kingdom, we'll have comfortable beds to lay down in. And if she's not, I will take a few liberties with my authorization."
Len was more or less relieved that Meiko hadn't said she would kill this Lady Conchita for a bed, but the words were still vague. "Lead the way, then."
She did so with a little more spring in her step than Len remembered her having, but the same could be said for himself. There was little chatter between them as they walked down the path, Len very conscious of not stepping off it. A while into the march, Len's paranoia broke the comfortable silence, "You mentioned something about a demon?"
"Yes, the Demon," Meiko confirmed.
When she said nothing else, Len asked, "Could you tell me more about this Demon?"
Meiko spun around so quickly that Len wasn't sure that she'd moved or just had the magnificent ability to blur on a whim. "You don't know the Demon?"
Len shrugged. "I'm...not exactly from here, ma'am."
"Meiko. I'm not going to answer to 'ma'am'. It makes me feel old," she chastised. "But you're a foreigner? It would certainly explain your ignorance to go wandering in places that even the least educated people of Dymuno know to be death traps."
He couldn't help but feel a little insulted. "And the Demon?"
"Right," Meiko sighed, turning around and continuing to walk. She waved her hand to tell him to keeping tagging along, and Len felt insulted again. He wasn't a toddler, just new.
"Back before Queen Alice's armies conquered this kingdom, rumors about the Demon in the Purple Forest had already been cycling," Meiko explained. "They say if you wander into the forest, you'll hear a song. An enchantment, really. It lures you away, and no one is ever seen again. It's a demon's song."
"If no one is ever seen again," Len interrupted suddenly, "then how does anyone know about the Demon or the song?"
Meiko paused. "...You heard it, didn't you? When you ran away from me. Some people get back on the path in time before the whispers ensnare them. There are also sightings of the Demon on record. I've certainly seen it."
"Lady Conchita and I were part of the original team to hunt the Demon. I carved paths through the forest and Lady Conchita provided the enchanted stones." Meiko said with a pat to her sword like it was a trusted pet rather than a weapon. "I was only a mercenary back then, fighting in Dymuno's war for money instead of pride. Cutting through the forest to make it safe for travel was also something Queen Alice paid me a hefty sum for. Then I was knighted and Lady Conchita had her mansion built, keeping reports of the Demon's activity if she could detect it."
Len frowned. Dymuno, the strange new land the Master hid in, must not have been around all too long. Meiko was older than him, certainly, but she was still bright with youth.
"The Demon doesn't attack anyone on the paths?"
Meiko laughed. "Cowardly beast's too afraid. It sticks to its traps."
Frown deepening, Len couldn't help but think there was something wrong with Meiko's word of mouth demonic knowledge.
Eventually, the two came across a wider stone area. "This is Lady Conchita's walkway," Meiko explained.
"It was the home of Vanika Conchita down that path," someone corrected, voice deep and steady. "She's been dead for a few weeks now."
Len swallowed his heart just to get it out of his throat and Meiko already had her sworn drawn with a hiss of metal. "Demon!" Meiko growled. "My sword is stained with a dead woman's blood and I will not hesitate to add yours to it!"
Len glanced behind him to where the speaker was according to the point of Meiko's blade, and he saw the Demon for the very first time. It wasn't what Len expected when he heard the word demon, imagining misplaced joints on lengthy limbs and enough teeth to put sharks to shame, but this Demon of the Purple Forest was hardly terrifying in any way. Tall with a man's visage, wrapped in swathes of silks and shawls, and narrow eyes as blue as its hair, he didn't look very menacing at all.
"The Red Alice," the Demon greeted with a nod of his head, as Len had come to think of the Demon as a man rather than an it, coupling his voice with the image he presented. "I remember the first time we met. During the war, was it?"
"I am lucky to have escaped with my life. Demon! What has happened to Vanika Conchita?"
Rolling his head on his neck, the Demon sighed and stepped onto the stone path. Len expected something to happen, like a devil on hallowed ground, but he didn't flinch. He also hadn't seemed very cautious, so Len's faith in Meiko's coward hypothesis dwindled. "She starved to death, Red Alice. She ate all she could and then exhausted herself in her endeavors to find more sustenance. Poor woman, I felt a little bad for her despite her years of chasing after me. Probably thought I'd make a fine meal."
"There's plenty of food sent to Lady Conchita," Meiko snarled. "You can't trick me with lies, Demon!"
The demon looked down the point of the sword before casting his gaze beyond its wielder, looking to the path to Vanika's home. "Forgive me, but it seems you don't understand the depth of Vanika Conchita's affliction. I doubt your food suited her tastes any longer."
Len saw the change in Meiko before he registered what it was—and when he did, it was clearly something in her eyes. When off the offensive, Meiko's eyes were a welcoming chocolate color, but as soon as she felt truly threatened, they looked like flat bronze coins set in her head. He saw their friendly sheen dull and stepped back in time to see the entirety of Meiko's vicious swipe. The blade swept through the air with a whistling sound and would have slashed through the skin on the Demon's pale neck had the blue-haired man-creature stepped back and away like his bones and muscles were liquid.
"How unruly," he said and Len saw the changes in him, too. They were more obvious than Meiko's, the demon's nails stretching into thick, pointed claws, incisors growing too long and sharp to hide beneath his sneering lips, and the points of horns protruding from his skull. "If we must do battle, Red Alice, then do it with a little more grace."
Drawing his wicked claws to his lips, he whispered, "Chou," and thrust his hand out towards Meiko. Len backed up even more and tumbled into the bush behind him as hundreds of blue, shimmering butterflies exploded from his extended palm. Thorns dug into his palm and Len regained his footing quickly, peeking over the bush to see Meiko swatting the butterflies away from her even as they began to burst against her armor. They reminded him of flying grenades, these kamikaze insects. He was going to call out to her, but something distracted him. Whispers in his head, a girl singing, just as before, and Len froze.
Meiko had warned him, hadn't she, about the Demon's song? All he had to do was take a step back out onto the path and he'd be safe and the voice would leave him alone, even if he would be stepping into a battleground. All it would take was a step.
Something pulled on his ankle. Peering down, Len saw a purple mist coating the ground. Trying to lift his feet resulting in the familiar feeling of someone's hands locked around them and he found movement impossible. "M-Meiko...?" he murmured through the dread swimming in his stomach. "Meiko!"
"Come with me," the singing voice crooned. Instead of bouncing off the walls of his skull, it sounded like the singer was just beside him, breathing the words into his ear. "We can play forever."
A hand gripped his forearm and pulled. Len blinked and caught himself before he fell face-first onto the stone path and looked up to see the blue-eyed Demon towering above him. "Chou!" he bellowed into the wall of trees and the butterflies darted away from Meiko like rockets. As they vanished into the forest, the wind howled like a scream.
"Y-you saved me," Len looked up at the Demon, mouth agape. He glanced down at him with slit pupils until they widened and rounded, all monstrous features smoothing down into a perfectly human-looking face.
"It is what I do," he said with only the faintest of shrugs. "Or perhaps you have not heard of Kaito the Dispel?"
"Kaito the Dispel...that's you?" Meiko shrieked. The sword had found its way back to its sheath, but the cuts on her face from razor-edged butterfly wings and the dark glare she was sporting made her look just as perilous. "But you're the Demon!"
The Demon sighed before offering Len a hand up from the ground. Len was glad to accept it only after he checked that the claws were tucked safely out of sight. "Can't I be both? The rumors are rather curious. It is because of my charms through the forest that the paths you've carved in the forest are safe to wander. The original spells on them faded years ago."
"So anyone that wanders away from the paths is your dinner, is that how you rationalize it?" Meiko snarled. Len found himself pulled away from Kaito in the next second, pressed safely against Meiko's back. Her armor smelled of the leather it was made from and black powder.
Kaito shook his head. "I haven't eaten a human in centuries, long before the kingdom Dymuno invaded was built."
"Bull shit if I've ever heard it," Meiko grumbled.
"The voice you hear when you wander from the path is from a creature far more powerful than a demon of my standing," Kaito informed. "She is a lonely spirit locked into this very land, eager for new souls to pull into the dream land she lives in. If I cannot purify her from this place, neither can your kingdom's royal bloodline. It's safer to just keep your silly people on the paths."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"I do," Len said. Meiko made some kind of loud gasping noise that could have been a shriek or something of the like, but it reminded him of a choking cat.
Kaito smiled. "Thank you. Because you're being civil, I can offer you a place to rest until daybreak, if you like, but only you, because I don't like Her Wretchedness's choice in knights."
"Not happening!" Meiko protested. "Len!"
A/N: There was going to be a little bit more, but I figure it can just be added to the beginning of the next chapter, purely because I am sick of staring at this document, trying to make it write itself.
To the person who can name the song I used to inspire Kaito's main attack (keyword: main, look forward to the future) gets some kind of prize from me. It's up to negotiation.