To my players: It is Hallowe'en now, a fitting time for drawing endeavours to a close. And thus the Changeling game, which has flagged in recent months, is no more. I would like to sincerely thank you all for taking part in a game that has lasted well into its third year and churned out nearly 200,000 words of some of the most enjoyable and amusing fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading. More than anything else, I hope you have all had as much fun with this game as I have.
This is my present to you - the ending for the game that never ended, the finalé and the epilogue of "Changeling: In Love and War" as I hoped they would be.
Part I. An Old Friend
Never could one have imagined a stranger group of Lords and Ladies than that which stood at the foot of the Black Rose tower. Politicians of renown they were not, and nor were they leaders of war – those lay dead or dying across the sacred Queen's Square where the final battle between Red and White had found its crescendo.
Duke Cain and Duchess Ilandra Honeysuckle, and Duke Abel Poppy, attired in their ducal robes and armour. Viscountess Saledenre, whose eyes had seen more than most, and Serin, the Poppies' ultimate weapon in the battle that never came. Earl Nyano, and his father Serendil, for whom Politics has brought more danger than they thought possible. Akane, as mysterious as ever, and Albert, the pawn who came good in the end. Gustafssen, who chuckled to himself as he reviewed page after page of documents stolen from the tower itself by his vitamin-rich task force. Azimov, who had saved House after House in battle but still had not returned to his own.
And Hugh who, with the unmistakably British battle-cry of “No time like the present, eh chaps?”, kicked open the heavy oak doors of the tower and led the rag-tag group inside.
As each faerie stepped inside the tower, they were surrounded by blackness. No ordinary shadow was this, but a pervasive force that stamped out all traces of light. The cold white sunlight in the Square outside permeated a bare few inches into the gloom. They trudged ahead, holding hands and calling quietly to each other so that none were left behind.
The corridor carried on for forever, many times the exterior width of the tower or so it seemed. Voices were raised to a normal talking level as one by one the interlopers wondered if they were going around in circles, or were being led into a trap.
Subtly, almost on the edge of their perception, there was a quiet, polite, feminine cough. All talking ceased as the light faded from pitch black to shades of grey.
The corridor fanned out into a circular chamber in which stood, dead-centre, the one woman everyone was expecting to see.
“Well,” said Elaine, “I hope you're all happy.”
“Happy about what?” asked Nyano.
“Oh, I don't know.” the Black Rose agent replied, her grimace visible despite the gloom. “The death toll, perhaps?”
Nyano yelped and ducked behind Azimov's legs, before remembering that he was an Earl now and needed to show composure.
“You speak as if the war was our fault,” said Abel. “But we all know that wasn't the case. The Council began this stupid power game, and even after your faction grew in power you did nothing to stop it.”
“The Houses were insufficiently committed to stopping the war. Had they accepted the offer of our protection, the Reds and Whites would have been left bereft of allies and easily mopped up. However, by and large, they elected to stay in their foolish war. A decision that, in several notable cases – Poppy, Honeysuckle, Willow, Buttercup, Heather – was aided by none other than yourselves. The deaths of thousands are on your conscience.”
There was a moment's pause whilst the appropriate response was considered. In the end, it was Gustafssen who spoke.
“Ah,” the scientist muttered, “but they are not quite dead, ja?”
“What do you mean?” asked Elaine.
“Well, death is not exactly permanent. The soul is reincarnated, correct?”
“Of course. That has always been the way of things.”
“So we have not truly... killed anyone. Not destroyed any souls.”
“You think that makes it better? What, exactly, is your point?”
“You would have.”
“Would have what?”
“Destroyed souls. Fraulein Elaine, I have seen more of the Black Rose Committee's activities than most people realise. And, from what I know of your organisation, I think I have seen more than even you. After all, you are but a pawn, are you not?”
“I... I...” Elaine stuttered.
“But you knew enough about the Committee's intentions, ja? And like all Fae, you know about iron and what it is used for.”
“To meddle with iron? A despicable practice that I believed to be confined only to the likes of you, Gustafssen!”
But the scientist did not reply. From the pocket of his lab coat he had withdrawn a sacrificial lemon, raised from birth to this eventual end. Gustafssen sliced it neatly in half, and impaled each half with a thin sliver of metal. With one brief investiture of glamour into the separated fruit, sparks began skipping between the two prongs. And, with a greater one, those sparks began to jump between them and Elaine as well, leaving tiny scorch marks in her otherwise immaculate dress.
“Aha!” shouted Gustafssen, visibly beaming with pride at his achievement. “At last, die verfluchte Sache works! Und as I suspected, this one has the essence of iron about her.”
Elaine shot a glare at Gustafssen before sweeping it across the rest of the group, daring anyone to act.
Against all odds, it was Nyano who dared to speak. “She has iron? That's... that's horrible!”
“I am not the only one present to do so,” she said, returning her gaze to Serin.
Nyano glanced nervously at the gypsy woman. “But she's... she's a nice person! And she said she's never used her exploding-crossbow on any faerie before!”
“That's about to change,” said Elaine.
The Black Rose agent's right hand spurted black and purple fire, coruscating with lightning that burned the eyes. The corona stretched outwards, encompassing the umbrella that she had once held so daintily but now gripped as if her life depended on it. And then, with that was beginning to be a rather familiar gut-wrenching lurch, the world went wrong.
Where once that umbrella had been, Elaine of the Black Rose Committee now brandished a sword of brutal, soul-devouring iron.
A second later, there was a noise both sudden and loud beyond comprehension.
When their brains had settled and they had assessed their eardrums for having exploded, they came to the confusing realisation that it was Elaine that was lying on the floor. Almost as one, they turned to look behind them.
Where Serin stood, smiling sweetly, through a haze of gunpowder smoke.
Elaine twitched, shuddered and slowly got to her feet. Serin scowled, and set about reloading her musket. Everyone else just stood there, shocked.
“Run, idiots!” Serin shouted, and with that jolted life back into the faeries. “I'll deal with her, you carry on!”
All bar Azimov turned and sprinted past the slowly-standing Elaine, heading for the stairs at the back of the chamber. The Snapdragon noble, though, charged straight for the Black Rose risking his life as a distraction. As his glamour-glass sabre clashed against Elaine's iron, the magic died immediately and the glass shattered in sympathy. He drew his bronze blade, and charged again...
The drum-beat footsteps of the remaining faeries sprinting up the stone staircase was enough to drown out the metal-on-metal clashes of swords below. But no matter how high they got, nothing seemed to disguise the regular rumble of gunfire, and nothing disguised the screams.
Part II. The Forest, and What they Found There
The long ascent gave the faeries almost too much time to dwell on what had happened over the past few months, and what was yet to happen. Fairyland had awoken from its Winter lacking a King and Queen; with only the Council of thirteen Dukes and Duchesses to rule the land. And what a job they'd done! Within weeks of the beginning of Spring, the Council were divided down the middle by the charismatic Rose Dukes, and war was declared. All for to decide which of them would become King and take a bride as Queen.
And now, the Council was no more. A couple of its members had survived, by pulling out of the war just as the enemy reached their gates, but the majority of them lay dead on fields of blood alongside the Roses.
No King, no Queen, no Council. The power vacuum was not easily filled, not least because nobody wanted the job anymore. The most powerful faction in the land was the Black Rose Committee, but the group now ascending the tower was determined not to let them fill it. Using iron, sealing away magic, genocide that killed the very souls of their opponents – the Black Roses' list of crimes was immense.
But the final piece of the puzzle was still missing. Who were the Black Rose Committee, and what did they want? Who was in charge, and what would they do if all Fairyland bowed at their feet? What, for that matter, would happen if they were defeated?
Quiet contemplation had led them at last to the top of the spiralling stairs, but what greeted them was not a room - not even an expansive chamber - but a forest. The steps rose up through a gap in what otherwise looked like solid earth.
They spread out, to the limit of their sight in each direction, but did not discover an edge or indeed any sign that they were still in the tower.
Thoroughly lost and confused, they regrouped and followed the only slight indication of a path. Minutes passed before at last Abel voiced what they had all been thinking.
"We've been tricked, haven't we?"
"I... don't think so," Saledenre said carefully. "I'm sure I would have felt it if we'd been moved somehow."
"But this doesn't look like the inside of a tower," said Nyano.
"You're right," said Abel. "But I don't see we have a choice but to carry on. Assuming this isn't the top - and it doesn't feel like the top - there must be a way up somewhere."
"It can't hurt to keep going a bit further," said Ilandra. "After all, the path still goes on..."
"Right. Let's stay together and keep on going," Abel said, turning. "Wait. Akane, where's Albert?"
Albert had only wandered a little way from the group, and was easily found. He was staring up into a tree, asking somebody for directions!
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asked Albert.
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the voice from the trees. An unnerving voice, as if its owner were a little less hinged than is normal.
"I don't much care where –"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go."
"– so long as it's up," Albert added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the voice, "if you only walk long enough."
It was beginning to dawn on the nobles that they had heard this dialogue before somewhere before. The voice in the tree... The Cheshire Cat! Of course, Albert was a peasant, he didn't know!
"Just turn around," said the Cat, "and walk... that way. You'll see, soon enough."
"Albert, no!" cried Akane.
Albert stopped just short of turning his back on the Cheshire Cat, and span to face the Pooka. The cat, for his part, just grinned, and faded away.
"Be seeing you," he whispered as he flickered into a grimace, and was gone.
Part III. The Story of the Alice Game is Told
Once their heart rates had settled after their brief moment of panic, they began to walk again. This time they did not move so casually. At the edges of the group the warriors amongst them paced steadily, their eyes flickering back and forth across the forest and their hands resting uneasily on weapons. Toward the centre, Akane was debating with herself just how much she could tell Albert, what with him being a commoner and all.
Saledenre had no such reservations, however, and without waiting for Akane to stop looking troubled, she decided to tell the tale for Albert's sake anyway.
"Once upon a time," the Eshu began, "there was a Duchess who was thoroughly Unseelie of thought and sadistic in particular. No-one in all of Fairyland much liked her, nor she them, and so she frequently found herself alone. But being alone is boring, and so since she could abide none of her own kind, she sought out humans to entertain her.
"Now there has long been a history of us bringing humans to our land, whether as slaves - the Unseelie way, of course - or as lovers, or by mere accident." She shot a look at Hugh, who was too busy discussing beetroot with Gustafssen to notice. "But nothing pleased the Duchess more than tormenting people for her own amusement. So, she would take a human child, and she would create a story for it - a twisted, disturbing tale that embodied the very essence of Arcadia that is anathema to the humans. One of her favourite plot devices is none other than the grinning cat you have just encountered.
"I most strongly advise that, should we meet him again, you do not turn your back for even a moment.
"This 'game', for want of a better word, this method of torturing humans for amusement, spread quickly amongst those who were that way inclined. It became known as the 'Alice Game' after the one human girl who eventually, after the almost complete loss of her sanity, escaped.
"And now, that tale has become woven into the very fabric of our world - the only 'Fairy Tale' that we, not humans, created. The cat and the other characters of Alice's story turn up all over the place, though why here is anyone's guess."
"These other characters," asked Albert, "wouldn't happen to include a dandy-looking chap and some kind of rodent, would they?"
"Dormouse," said Saledenre. "Ye- why, yes, absolutely. How on earth did you know that?"
Albert merely looked worried until Saledenre finally turned to see what stood ahead of them on the path. The group had bunched together and stopped.
Ahead of them in a small clearing stood not only the grinning cat, who was nonchalantly preening himself as if there was no tension in the air at all, but a refined gentleman with a fine top hat and cane, and a vastly oversized but still somehow cuddly-looking dormouse.
"Ah," said Saledenre.
"You there," shouted Cain, standing forward from the rest of the group. The dormouse snarled, revealing unexpectedly sharp teeth. The gentleman poked it with his cane, and it went back to looking innocent again.
"Do you seek to hinder our progress?" Cain asked.
"Most assuredly we do!" replied the Mad Hatter. "You must be weary of your journey, having been lost in the woods for so very long, and I would invite you to have tea with us!"
Cain narrowed his eyes, struggling to stay polite. "No, thank you. In case you were not aware, whoever is in charge of the Black Rose committee has thoroughly destabilised the entire world, thousands of soldiers lie dead and dying at the foot of this tower, and we are on our way to sort this mess out once and for all!"
"Well, that doesn't sound very jolly."
"I'm going to have to insist you stay for tea anyway."
The cat and the dormouse, either side of the gentleman, started to move forward and outward into somewhat more threatening positions. And still, the Cheshire Cat did not stop grinning.
Albert stepped forward. "I'll deal with this," he said solemnly.
"Don't be ridiculous!" Akane shouted. "You don't know what you're facing here!"
"I already know more than I am supposed to. And there was some truth in what that fool Jebodiah said all along. Nobles do things- Some nobles do things that didn't ought to be done. And this particular... game, or whatever it is supposed to be, ought to end now."
"But you're... I mean, no offence, but you're a commoner! You couldn't possibly take them on!"
"I nearly ended up killing most of the Red leaders, didn't I?"
"Well... yes, but that was poisoning. This is- I don't know what this is going to turn out as, but it's not going to involve subtlety!"
"Albert," said Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, interjecting himself between the commoner and the Pooka. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"Then you should probably take this," he said, proffering a small black jar from his bag. "I did some very careful tests on that substance that Indigo Something had - the substance that he actually wanted you to poison us with. It turns out it's quite common in the human world - rather than being a vicious poison like it is to Fae, some of them even like it!"
Albert took the bottle, and gazed blankly at the glyphs on the label that to any human would have spelled "RIVER COTTAGE FINEST YEAST EXTRACT".
"Never mind what it's called," said Hugh. "Spread some on the blade of that sword of yours, and give them what for!"
"Right," Albert said with conviction. He began coating his sword with the strange, viscous substance.
"Well..." Akane looked lost for words. "If you're staying to fight, so am I!"
"Akane!" Ilandra shouted.
"It's okay," Akane said softly, with a smile. "It's not as if I'd let something trifling like this finish me off, is it?"
"I... I guess you're right. We'll be back for you on the way down!" Ilandra called after her as she and the rest of the group made off at speed into the forest, leaving Akane and Albert to deal with their adversaries.
Akane took aim with her pistol, and knocked the hat clean off the Hatter's head to reveal a bald patch underneath. The gun works! But of course, why wouldn't it? Though the fae created these things, it was human stories that gave them life. Modern human stories. The Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the Cheshire Cat came from a world that knew about firearms!
As Albert rushed their opponents, his sabre trailing globules of Marmite behind him, a grin spread across Akane's face to rival even the Cheshire Cat's.
Part IV. What was Lost is Found Again
They looped around the clearing, trusting Akane and Albert to emerge the victors from the combat still going on behind them. Even as the path started to incline steadily, the faeries quickened their pace at Abel's insistence. After all, who knew what destructive deeds were being planned by the Black Rose Committee now that the Rose Dukes were dead, and how long their plans might take them to carry out? Every moment they dallied, they thought, some disaster loomed closer...
Before very long, they reached stone steps that led up to a plateau. In the centre of which stood-
"Mother!" shouted Abel, rushing forwards, for it was Regara! But he stopped short - something was wrong.
There was a faint suggestion of a black shadow over her hunched form, though there was nothing above her to cast such a thing. And, faintly visible, her eyes seemed red rather than brown.
They approached cautiously, Cain and Abel in the lead. When they were about fifty feet away, Regara's head jerked upwards and she looked directly at her sons, but with vacant eyes that did not recognise them.
"Intruders!" she shouted. "Guards! Off with their heads!"
Before they knew it, playing-card soldiers wielding spears and swords leapt from behind bushes and rocks in a seemingly endless stream. Cain, Abel and their friends fought bravely, card after card falling at their feet, but still Regara called for more and still more appeared. Before long, they were being pushed back by sheer weight of numbers.
"It's no good!" shouted Hugh. "We'll have to go for the Duchess, we've got no choice!"
"No!" Nyano squeaked. "You can't hurt her! Please say you won't hurt her!"
"I will deal with it," said Serendil.
"Father!" Nyano shouted.
"Hold the guards back!"
As the guards were defeated one by one, Serendil took step after step backwards, then ran up, jumped, span in the air, and with an almighty cry of "Really Not Too Dangerous Rolling Thunder Ultra Kick!" placed a boot squarely on Regara's forehead.
The former Duchess collapsed, the shadow lifting from her.
"See?" Serendil said. "You knew I wouldn't let her come to any harm."
Serendil sighed. "Nyano, you go on ahead. I will stay and explain things to the Duchess."
"Hush, Nyano. It's time."
"You out-rank even me now, Earl Nyano-Sgiathatch. It's time."
"The rest of you, too," said Cain. "Abel and I will stay. We've got a lot of explaining to do when she wakes up."
Five, in the end, marched onwards. Ilandra, Nyano, Saledenre, Hugh and Gustafssen, reluctantly leaving yet another group behind, started to make their way up the steps at the far edge of the plateau. And, as they ascended, light rose up from the ground in swirls and sparkles, surrounding them and enveloping them.
Part V. Atop the Black Rose Tower
The light cleared around them, disappearing into the floor in helical patterns just as swiftly as it had sprung up. No longer did they stand on stone steps rising up out of the forest, but rather they were back inside something identifiable as a tower again.
Obsidian glass, which had looked black as night from a distance, now resolved itself to be translucent from up close. It surrounded them on three sides, the fourth being taken up by an imposing black-carpeted and gilt-etched staircase rising up into the tower's peak. Scattered across it lay black roses, as if some jilted lover discarded them one by one during her sad descent.
Atop the stairs and through an open archway lay another expanse that was undoubtedly wider than the tower, although this time at least it gave the pretense of being a room rather than an entire forest. At its centre rested a gigantic table, taking a good ten seconds to walk each of its sides, on which were etched various connecting wavy lines and models of castles and soldiers.
"Is this a... map?" asked Nyano, sitting on Hugh's shoulders so he could see the table from above.
Hugh sighed. He had quite forgotten that most faeries had no contact with humans, and thus had little experience of cartography.
"That's right," Hugh explained. "It looks like a map of all of Arcadia!" He pointed enthusiastically around it. "Look, here's where we are, right in the middle. This one looks a bit like the tower we're in. And over there, doesn't that look like Castle Poppy?"
Nyano, rather than mirroring Hugh's excitement, looked shocked. "But... does that work? The scouts make little maps of places, but Mister Chicken said that spi- um, I mean 'researchers', go far away really quickly 'cos of something called sub-jec-tive geog-ra-phy."
"Ja," said Gustafssen. "Who knows, perhaps the map distorts sometimes. Or the Black Rose servants rearrange the pieces?"
Outside, just visible through the glass walls, the sun was setting and the clouds - below them, at this height - were darkening. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
"Isn't this Willow land?" asked Ilandra, pointing to a section over to one side of the map table.
"Looks about right," said Hugh.
"This bit of the table is black, and they were Black Rose allies."
"But the black is... spreading."
That drew everyone's attention.
Sure enough, as they watched, the black patch was expanding into neighbouring areas. Now that they had seen it once, they started noticing it elsewhere on the map too - darkened areas spreading slowly outwards, oozing almost, into nearby kingdoms.
"That's not good, is it?"
"I am guessing not."
"Onwards and upwards?"
The only way up was a small spiral staircase in the back wall. They ascended in single file, closed in by walls of glass that here were mercifully thick enough here to be opaque.
It was only a few turns of the stairs before they reached another floor. The baroque black-and-gold excess continued unabated here, as they stood inside a reception room that was dominated by imposing black doors at the far end. Above them, through the near-transparent substance of the tower, the sky had quickly darkened to leave only flickering torchlight illuminating the room.
But there was sky above, not more tower! At long last, after hours trapped in tunnels and lost in woods, after leaving friends behind and encountering only foes, they had reached the top.
"Let's get this over with, shall we?" said Saledenre.
Nyano gripped his boomerang tightly. "Right."
With the raccoon in the lead, and Ilandra, Gustafssen, Hugh and Saledenre steadily pacing behind, they approached the end of the room.
The double doors swung open without a sound as they approached. Beyond them was only darkness, a thick gloom into which the torchlight did not penetrate. With hearts beating fast, they stepped inside. Behind them, the doors shut tight.
Seconds passed, or perhaps minutes. Having lost their sense of place in the darkness and the silence, their sense of time was slipping too. But a candle lit, somewhere, a single white flame in the blackness. Then another, and another, and two more, dozens, hundreds. Flames danced from candle to candle, each illuminating the area around it. Solitary lights became candles, candlesticks, mantlepieces on which they rested and chandeliers in which they hung. And at the centre of the room, a throne.
Its occupant stood, a face dimly visible atop a dress that the light illuminated only as black. Dark brown hair fell razor-edge straight over her shoulders.
"Good evening," she said in a voice sweet as toffee. "I am glad finally to make your acquaintance. My name is Alice Pleasance Liddell."
Part VI. Through the Looking-Glass
Saledenre arched an eyebrow, thought for a second, and promptly lowered it again.
"Sally," piped up Nyano's high-pitched voice, "who's-" But Alice interrupted.
"Deary me, where are your manners? I have introduced myself, now it is your turn."
No matter what thoughts were forming in their minds, no matter what they were screaming at their voice-boxes to do, all that escaped their mouths was the politest of introductions and all their bodies would do is bow or curtsey.
"Ilandra, Duchess Honeysuckle."
"Nyano-Sgiathatch, Earl Poppy."
"Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Viscount Poppy."
"Saledenre, Viscountess Poppy."
"Gustafssen, Baronet Poppy."
"Well then, now we are amicably acquainted, may I enquire as to the purpose of your visit?"
The magical compulsion to be formal seeming to have been dropped, Saledenre blurted out her train of thought.
"You're Alice. The Alice. Alice-in-Wonderland Alice."
"Indeed I am," said the girl with a smile. "I do beg you pardon for not offering you to sit and to take tea, but as you see this room is rather ill-equipped for such." She gestured at the floor, which was almost entirely covered by flickering candles. "In fact, you're my first guests in quite some time!"
"But why are you here? The story goes that you were the only-" Saledenre paused, thinking of a more tactful way to put it. "You returned to your world! Who brought you back, and for what?"
"My Lady Poppy, you misunderstand entirely. Allow me to explain - I was not brought here, not this time. Pray allow me to tell you the story." Alice sat down on her throne, and as she did so it became more plush and comfortable, developing padded arm-rests and a footstool.
"Oh, it simply won't do to leave you standing after all. Come." She waved her arm expansively, and candles cleared from the floor to make way for two long couches and a low table which sported five china cups and a steaming teapot. The faeries sat, and tea was poured for them by some force unseen.
"It has been a very long time, by the reckoning of my old world, since I last visited. I was but eleven years of age, and now I am sixteen. I have had five years in which to consider what occurred back then, five years to grow stronger and more resistant to the ways in which your kind plays with the thoughts and perceptions of mine.
"Now since my second visit to this world, the looking-glass mirror that I had used for a means of passage had lain dormant. This remained the case until not so long ago - by my reckoning, which doubtless means little you you, this would be the year 1871. A good friend of mine, a young gentleman by the name of Samuel McGregor-Matthews, helped me to make it work again.
"Not long after that, there was a falling-out in our household concerning whether or not Samuel was fit to be a husband - for some reason my idiotic father insisted I should seek a 'real' man, by which he of course meant a wealthy one. I resorted to the mirror as my means to escape that ridiculous incident, but it turned out that Samuel's spell was not quite as good as was desired and when I attempted to return I found that I could not. No matter - I had a little something to take care of in the way of revenge.
"Previously, this place had had quite an effect on me. But this time, older and wiser, it was I who had an effect on it! You have of course enjoyed the delights of the tower I created with mere will, and met those servants of mine that I conjured with but a thought. But faeries themselves - I have found you a little less tractable than I had hoped. However, without a King and Queen, you squabble like children! So easily manipulated and made to turn against each other! So easily played like pawns!"
Alice could barely suppress a giggle.
Nyano stood, indignant, but Alice turned to glare at him.
"Sit," she said gently, and the raccoon's feet disappeared from under him leaving him sitting once again.
"As I was saying, you have all been most compliant, and have thoroughly failed to notice your imminent downfall. To think, Fairyland ruled by a human! Preposterous! And yet, about to occur."
"You'll never be Queen!" shouted Ilandra. "And no-one would be your King!"
"Quite right," said Alice. "I have no intention whatsoever of allowing two rulers to co-exist. For what reason would I need anybody else? No, by the time the Black Rose poison has seeped its way across the land, into the hearts of every living thing, the world will have quite forgotten its imagined need for a King or Queen. Only one absolute ruler will be required, and everyone will know in their very souls that that ruler is me!"
"You are mad!" said Gustafssen. "Even by our standards, you are mad!"
"Alas no, I'm afraid it is you that are mad. I am quite sane."
"Following white rabbits und walking through mirrors? Even other humans vould pronounce you mad."
"That is of no import. I care not for human standards, nor for their world - this world is mine now!"
"Und yet, you had not counted on us."
Alice scoffed. "Hah! You think I am impressed that you have defeated - no, not even that, you have avoided my minions? And now you sit here taking tea with me rather than fighting me. You cannot even lay a finger on me!"
All of a sudden, the room exploded into life. Candles flickered a million colours, the walls and floor flickered and distorted, thick black strands of fate flickered into existence in the air, and at the centre of it all, Alice collapsed to the ground with a scream. Ilandra, Nyano, Saledenre and Hugh looked around wildly, until at last their sights settled on the one man who was just sitting and grinning.
Gustafssen stood slowly, revealing in his hand a throbbing, glittering device with one big red button and a sticky note saying 'Really, really DON'T TOUCH THIS ONE.'
"Experimental high-Glamour field," said the scientist. "Ein trifling invention zat I had discarded a few years ago, recently resurrected using a most useful vegetable that Hugh introduced me to, ze kale. Kale ist high in iron, und is thus ze perfect catalyst. Und being human, ze little girl could not handle ze sudden increase in Glamour."
"So," asked Nyano, "is she... dead?"
"Alas, nein. Given some minutes, ze Glamour vill fade and she will return to consciousness. Ve must dispose of her quickly."
"I don't want to kill her," said Nyano. "Besides, what if she comes back? Like faeries do?"
"You are right, mein diminutive friend. However, ve must do something!"
"I have an idea," said Ilandra. The rest turned to face her. "We must send her back to the human world. And we must do it in a way that severs her ties to this world."
"But she will always remember our world," said Saledenre. "She's in too deep, she won't forget."
"I..." Ilandra began. "I can sever her ties."
"These black strands, that Gustafssen made visible. I know what they are. They're fate lines, they join every person to everything that is important to them. And I know how to cut them. But... there's a lot of them. Maybe too many. I don't know how many I can cut before I... I..."
She stopped there, for everyone understood what she was implying. A minute passed in silence, each contemplating Ilandra's sacrifice, until-
"Push them through!"
"Push them through!" repeated Hugh. "The fate lines, or what ever they are, push them through into the human world!"
"That hasn't made it any clearer."
"Saledenre, re-enchant the mirror! Abel showed you, right?"
"Right!" said Saledenre, and set about it.
"Nyano! Your boomerang, has it always returned to you?"
"Always. That's what a boomerang does, right?"
"Right! Ilandra, start grabbing fate strands!"
As the mirror flickered and glittered into life, revealing a dusty Victorian attic behind it, Ilandra pulled down a section of the fate web that tied Alice to the world. She tied them around Nyano's boomerang, and he threw it - straight through the mirror, taking the strands with it.
And the boomerang returned, fate-free.
The room at the top of the tower resonated with cheers.
Starting slowly, but then larger and larger sections at once, Alice's connection to Arcadia was stripped from her, passed through the mirror and became an anchor that tied her to her own world instead. By the time they had finished, the room was almost clear of black strands - only one giant bunch flowed between Alice and the mirror.
But the candles were no longer flickering so strongly; the Glamour was returning to normal! With no time to lose, Gustafssen rushed over to Alice's still prone body, hoisted her into the air, and all but threw her at the mirror.
She disappeared into it, and left nothing behind but ripples across its surface. Saledenre dropped her spell, and the mirror reflected only the tower-top room.
And, just to make the point, Hugh raised a frying pan above his head and brought it down against the mirror, shattering it into a thousand tiny shards of glass.
Part VII. A Brave New World
The sun slides below the horizon, ending another day in the emerald land of Arcadia. It has been a year and a day since the Black Rose tower cracked and fell, shattering into pieces and on into dust which blew away on the wind. Where the dark spire once stood, a rose bush now blooms - black-flowered, the only one of its kind in all the land. It remains as a memorial, and a warning to all those who seek absolute power over the world of Faerie. For Glamour and its people cannot be tamed, and even the Winter of human reason and disbelief could not kill them.
Her fate-strands torn from all her vassals in Fairyland, Alice Pleasance Liddell has been all but forgotten. Only five remember her, for in the moment of Alice's defeat a fate more powerful than any thread or web came to pass - they five had saved the world, and there is no greater destiny than that.
Though Alice is lost from memory, the Black Rose Committee and their actions are not. The War of the Roses, as it has become called, decimated the population of Arcadia and left the land not only without King or Queen but with no living members of the High Council that had ruled Fairyland in the royals' absence.
And of those few who stepped out of the doors of the black tower mere moments before it shattered? They found themselves at the centre of a circle of thousands if not millions of soldiers, waving and cheering, who had at last realised that there had been greater dangers afoot than mere battle. The heroes' faces appear in portraits hung in every castle and statues in every city, and their deeds are told in story and in song in every corner of the land, from noble courts to rowdy inns to school playing fields.
Saledenre travelled for a while in Arcadia, hopping from one Duchy to the next as they each slowly rebuilt their lands and reforged weapons into tools. But in all her travels, she did not find a single story that matched her own tale of how the Black Roses were defeated, and thus before long she set off for the human world again, trading her own tales for new ones drawn from humanity's bottomless well of inspiration.
Hugh and Gustafssen, though for the majority of the time a world apart, trade technology and culinary concoctions regularly. For the scientist, a never-ending stream of obscure vegetable varieties push his unfocussed and maniacal inventions ever closer to reality, whilst the chef is provided with arcane devices that add a touch of magic - and possibly a touch of dangerous chemical - to his recipes.
Azimov left the care of House Poppy shortly after the incident, and carved out a swathe of the now vacant Queen's Square to call his own. With a brand-new castle rising daily from the hilltop, he has exercised his right as the last living member of his family and created House Snapdragon anew. His flower now blooms all over the human world, and not one man or woman remembers the years for which the flowers were missing.
Nyano continues to be Regara's favourite pet, although the once-Duchess chose not to re-assume her former position. The Earl now serves as a trusted advisor to Duke Abel, and now and again stands in for the Duke at High Council meetings.
Ilandra returned to her Duchy, accepted her place on the recreated High Council, and settled down for all of a week. Nowadays, she and Cain are as often to be found on an adventure miles from home as to be at home presiding over affairs of state. In their absence, Akane takes their seat at Council, and has declared the scheming and plotting of the Faerie Houses to be as much of an intellectual challenge as the greatest of human mysteries. She still refuses to be called a Princess.
With none of the heroes of the tale willing to appoint themselves as King or Queen, and with no other Faerie noble daring to declare their own intentions, the two royal castles stand like museum pieces, empty and alone. Arcadia is presided over by the High Council alone, its thirteen new members chosen so as to avoid the Houses that were instrumental in starting and prolonging the war. Though many voiced fears at the time that the land would not tolerate a lack of King and Queen, or that Glamour itself would die, such suggestions are finally abating now that so long has passed.
The sun has set now, and each of the heroes stands from the hilltop where they had sat to watch it. It is the first time they have all stood together since that day atop the tower. Their lives have taken them across worlds and across time, but in their hearts, they are inseparable.
Each turns outwards, saying nothing, for there are no words to convey the weight of their memories. Each puts one foot in front of the other, and walks away, onwards and upwards into the rest of their lives.
And they all lived happily ever after.