Pricia was falling.
She had pushed her abilities too hard too soon after being reborn, rescued by the incarnation of Faria that had reclaimed her body from Valentina. It took all of her concentration now just to slow her descent such that she wouldn’t die upon impact with the earth that was rapidly approaching from below.
Her eyes felt heavy and she fought to keep them open. It was like when Bai Hu used to lecture her in the forests of Sissei and she’d fall asleep. It was an almost irresistible force. As air rushed past her ears, Pricia turned her head and caught the sight of a large creature on the horizon. It’s great wings spread so wide it seemed like they might cover the sky, and a halo that shone like the sun encircled the beast’s great head.
“Am I...dreaming?” Pricia spoke to herself. She felt her eyelids sink lower and lower, and her descending speed increase.
“No...stay...awake...” The girl’s consciousness sputtered like a dying candle. However it was to no avail, and Pricia finally succumbed to her exhaustion.
All at once Pricia felt a familiar warm sensation. Around her the world seemed to have stopped moving, and she hung suspended in the air. In her hand, where she had once clutched Excalibur was now a hand. Pricia looked over to see the gentle smile of Faria greeting her.
“Faria...how?” Pricia asked.
“Our will is forever intertwined, ever since I borrowed your power to save you.”
“I’m so tired Faria. This world...all the worlds. I can hear their voices. I can’t do this. I thought if I could find Valentina things would get better but...I can’t...”
“Pricia, a long time ago I faced what I thought was an impossible task. I felt overwhelmed, I wanted to run. But someone appeared and reminded me of something.”
“What was it?”
“You don’t have to do it alone.”
“But I...I lost Lapis. He was the only one who knew-”
“Not Valentina.” Faria corrected. “Alice.”
“What’s wrong with Alice?” Faria did not answer the question and slowly the stopped world around Pricia began to fade away.
“Ah, wait!” Pricia protested to little success. The world continued to fade away, but there was something behind it. A single image, that Pricia could make out through the fog of the vanishing world. It was the shape of a wicked looking hunched man pulling at dark threads that wound and bound around Alice. The hunched man pulled at her emotions, exacerbating her hatred of the one who took her home from her. Madness swelled in her as she lost sight of her anger and instead became mindless in her rage.
Pricia finally awoke lying on the ground. She felt the grass brushing between her toes, the cool air blowing by along the fields.
“I understand now, Faria” Pricia said as she pushed herself up to her feet. “This world may be different, but it’s still the same sky, the same grass. It’s still a world that needs my help.” Her resolve replenished, Pricia turned to begin the journey back to the Light Palace, but then remembered the vision she saw in her dream. Thinking of those images she got a different feeling. One that told her that Alice wasn’t in the Light Palace anymore.
Somehow she knew exactly where to go, like someone was leading her, pulling her by an invisible thread. Was it Faria? She thought. Perhaps. It certainly did explain the strangeness with Excalibur earlier. But Pricia took comfort in it. She wasn’t alone, even if the world was strange. Faria was still with her, Alice was still here, and she wasn’t about to let that change.
The reformed Kaguya had wasted no time in gathering the remaining sages, awakening the ones who had still been dormant with Grusbalesta’s assistance. Zero too, had come once she’d heard from Grusbalesta where Kaguya had disappeared to. She was both terrified and relieved to see Kaguya in this state.
When Kaguya had surrounded herself in the bamboo, Zero had taken Charlotte back to the Light Palace, for fear of alarming the poor Attoractian girl any further. However, when she hastily returned for Kaguya, she found the bamboo thicket empty with signs that someone had been tearing at them. Thankfully, Grusbalesta was never one to leave things to chance and quickly contacted her to inform her of the situation. As happy as she was to know that Kaguya was okay, and seemed to have awakened her old powers, something was strangely off. It seemed at first that perhaps her transformation had locked away the new Kaguya’s personality, but the more Zero observed, the less that seemed to be the case. Zero had noticed telltale signs that underneath the facade was still the same Kaguya she loved like a daughter.
Kaguya was acting, using the transformation to run from her feelings.
“I won’t sit by, Grusbalesta. I can’t bear to see her like this.”
“Stay calm. If we’re going to save this world we need her at her full power, she needs to maintain this form. We can’t risk anything that might upset it.”
“We should all talk to her about it. Fiethsing...she was one of us, after all.”
“We will. Later. Right now we need to focus on living long enough to have that conversation.”
“Just...keep an eye on her for me when I’m not around, would you? She’s...she’s all I’ve got left.” Zero cast her fellow sage a sympathetic look.
“Of course.” Grusbalesta answered. “And you know you don’t have to be alone. The royal family, the sages, we’re here for you too. You can’t possibly mean to help Kaguya if you’re shutting yourself out too.” the sage adjusted his glasses.
“That’s right dear. Kaguya is your baby, but you’ll always be ours.” Moojdart chimed in, smiling wryly.
“That’s enough for now.” Milest added. “We’ve arrived at Almerius’ resting place.” Milest then directed the group’s attention to Kaguya, who was a few paces ahead of them, now standing in front of a secluded glade in the middle of an old forest.
An almost supernatural thin layer of fog wafted low between the trees, and hovering just above the banks of the small pond was the unmistakable shimmering of Almerius, sealed in her stone just as she was one thousand years ago.
“I will now awaken Almerius.” Kaguya solemnly informed the sages, a placid demeanor on her face. They did not respond and instead looked at her expectantly.
Effortlessly, Kaguya raised her hands and the glittering blue jewel floated down. A brilliant light burst forth from the stone and when it faded the form of the leader of the six sages stood where the gem was hovering above the bank of the pond.
“Well now. Isn’t this a sight for some sore old eyes!” Almerius said cheerfully. “Though from the your expressions I can tell this wasn’t for a party. Jeeze even Milest’s scowling? Things must be pretty serious this time.” Almerius paused for a moment, twirling her blonde hair in her fingers. “Hang on a moment, where’s Fiethsing? Run off again, has she?”
For a moment a grim silence hung amongst the group. Zero and Kaguya in looked particularly perturbed. Almerius quickly read the situation and understood.
“I see. That is...unfortunate. She was truly the best of us, she gave up a lot to join our cause. Who do we face in this new age?”
“The Altean.” Grusbalesta answered without hesitation. “The one from the legends.”
“They tried to take control of me.” Milest commented. “There’s also a wolf in sheep’s clothing that took control of Moojdart running around.”
“Not to mention that brat Lapis.” Zero added.
“There’s a lot in play.” Moojdart summarized. “But the primary threat is the Altean.”
“I see. Well, nothing’s ever been easy for us before, so why start now?” Almerius beamed, though the others did not echo her sentiment.”Eh...right then! What’s first?”
“We need to meet with Millium and the others. We learned that there’s a power we can use to stop Alhama’at. Nyarlathotep was leading him there.”
“The cthulhu?” Almerius cocked her head.
“A lot has changed since we last walked this world.” Grusbalesta mused.
From a safe distance, Gill Lapis watched as the Light Palace prince and the Dragonoid prisoner fused to form a powerful dragon, Lapis’ weapon against his father. Dusting himself off, he turned to leave, only to be confronted by a familiar face. Startled only for a moment, he quickly regained his composure.
“Master Lapis.” Rachel greeted him, her eyes ever evaluating. “What do you hope to gain by doing all of this?”
”Rachel? Ever my father’s lapdog I see.” the Altean woman was unfazed by Lapis’ cold remark.
“Master Lapis, do you truly intend not to return to Lord Alhama’at’s side?”
“I’ll return. He’s holding onto something I intend to take.”
”You should know very well that you cannot win against Lord Alhama’at.”
“Ha! Of course not. All I need to do is watch from the audience. I’ll watch as all you little puppets dance around, and when you finally fall...I will pluck up your strings.” A wicked smile crept across Lapis’ face.
“Unfortunately, you seem to misunderstand. You will not be allowed to sit by and marvel at your foolish handiwork. I’m afraid that I will have to exercise some extreme punishment.”
“Can you really afford to just ignore the escaped dragonoid girl? She’s already fused, you know?”
Even from their considerable distance the great howl of the dragon born of fusion was clearly audible.
“Viola is more than able to handle that creature.” Rachel reasoned. “I came to deal with you, specifically.”
“I see, well it can’t be helped then. Valentina? Where are you hiding? I know you’re there, you viper.”
From out of the mass of shadows clinging to the dark shadows Valentina did indeed appear. However her form was once again different, having lost Pricia’s body to its original inhabitant. Now she had taken the body of an Attoractian she had killed back on that planet. She sauntered confidently into the midst of the other two.
“You said you’d help me get Alice. I’m not interested in...” Valentina looked Rachel over for a moment. “Older women.” Valentina took another second before continuing. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have another spare though, as long as you present me with Alice like you promised.”
“Of course.” Lapis answered.
“This is getting ridiculous.” Rachel, fed up with talking, moved to attack. In an instant, she leaped forward, great wings bursting forth from her back. Channeling both angelic and demonic power within her Rachel merged the two to create a powerful attack.
The attack was too strong to block physically, but Valentina had something else in mind. She opened her mouth and sang a powerful melody that formed an invisible wall of sound. The spell collided with Rachel, safely repelling her attack.
Scowling, Rachel again called upon her demonic magic, summoning a horde of small demons who charged Lapis and Valentina. The possessor demon again repelled the attack with her enchanted notes.
“I could hold these filthy creatures back all day.” Valentina called to Lapis. “But you’re only getting four more minutes. I don’t do encores.”
“No matter, it looks like another player has entered the stage.” Lapis replied.
As if on cue, the ground between Valentina and Rachel began to twist and distort. It quickly expanded, surrounding them in a strange barrier filled with odd constructs and staircases that seemed to lead to nowhere and twist in impossible ways. Brick roads contorted into mobius strips and houses floated upside down within the large barrier.
Valentina’s discomfort with the sudden change in space was made clear immediately, she took great discomfort in the non-symmetrical hideous way things seemed to move around in the magical space. However, she quickly forgot about that when she saw who had appeared in the center of this mad world.
“Is that...Alice? No...Dark Alice?” Valentina questioned.
It was unmistakable that an Alice was standing at the center of the quickly expanding world of madness enclosed in the magical space. Valentina had spent a fair amount of time with Dark Alice, and this didn’t seem to exactly be her, though Schrodinger accompanied the wanderer as it did with Dark Alice. However it wasn’t quite the regular Alice either. It was something stranger. Unstable, like the world it seemed to conjure with its very presence.
“Room for one more, ladies? Hope you don’t mind if I kill you all.” The new Alice sneered. From behind her, her longtime allies the March Hare, Dormouse, and Mad Hatter appeared.
“We’re looking for someone. Don’t suppose you’ve seen him?” The Hatter asked.
“He’s this grumpy looking kid with white hair. Heard of him?” The Hare continued
“Isn’t that him over there?” The Dormouse asked.
“Hey, now that you mention it...” The Hare began.
“It sure seems like it!” The Hatter finished. The three all turned to face Lapis, with the strange Alice following suit. Slowly, leisurely, she began to pace forward. Her face twisted unnaturaly, half smiling, while the other half appeared to be frowning. The sclera of her right eye was a charcoal black that seemed to bleed down beyond her lower eyelid. Her right hand too seemed to be enveloped in a thick shadowy substance.
“Iiiii FooOoOuUund YyOouUu~” Alice spoke in a strange warbling sing song voice as she cocked her head to one side. “Welcome to the party. Let’s begin!”
Alice and her mad cohorts moved to attack Lapis. He moved to quickly respond, but found it unusually difficult to move within the strange space Alice had enveloped him and the others in.
“Oh? Master Lapis it certainly seems like you’ve acquired a rather dangerous new friend.” Rachel mocked from afar.
“Too much of a coward to fight me, so you got the Earthling to do it for you?” Lapis retorted angrily. Rachel merely smirked and adjusted her glasses.
“Valentina!” Lapis snapped. “Remove these pests from my presence!” But Valentina did not answer. She had no real allegiance to him, so why would she? What she truly desired, what she had wanted all along, was Alice. Who was standing only a few short paces away from her now.
“Alice, Alice, Alice, Alice.” Valentina muttered. “Here at last, my beautiful perfect Alice. Here to be taken. Here to be mine.” The woman leapt between Alice and Lapis, grasping Alice’s arms in her hands as a terrifying and hungry look spread across her face.
“Valentina.” The mad Alice began. “This little party isn’t for you.”
“Is that a last request before I take your body?”
“No, it was a warning.”
“Meow~” Schrodinger cried out from behind Valentina.
“You see, I’ve been thinking about how to kill you since you tried to steal my body back at the Light Palace-”
“You can’t possibly think you can kill me?” Valentina spat.
“No, I don’t. I’ve got something far worse in mind.”