HERE WE GO
Alice ran her fingers over the ivory handles of the daggers on the desk in front of her. Cold light filled the blades, their surfaces more like silvered glass than steel. You’d think after three months of knowing Addison Hatta, she wouldn’t be surprised whenever he pulled random weapons out.
“Pretty.” She plucked one up and raised her eyebrows. “Light. What are they?”
“Figment Blades.” Addison dug around in the drawers where he sat on the other side of the desk. The old metal rattled and creaked.
“For real?” She trailed her fingers over the flat of one of the glittering blades, the only things capable of killing Nightmares. She’d never held one before or seen one, really.
“They’ll help focus your Muchness.”
“Muchness.” He slammed a drawer then jumped with a curse, shaking out his hand. “Your Muchness, to be precise.” The fingers he’d shoved into his mouth muffled the words. “The part of you that believes in yourself, even when the rest of you doesn’t.”
Alice blinked a few times then set the dagger down. “Right. They look a lil small for killing monsters.” She’d only ever seen one Nightmare, when Addison rescued her the night her dad died. While it wasn’t huge, it was big enough to be scary as all hell.
“That’s not what matters.” He slammed another drawer. “The weapon is only part of the equation. A small part.”
The desk took up most of the cramped space he called his office—more like a slightly large broom closet—along with the small love seat Alice sat perched on. There were a couple lamps, but the place was mostly bare. No file cabinets, no computer, just a little shelf in the corner with a funky teapot on it.
“Says the dude who carries around a big fuck-off sword.” She’d glimpsed the black blade a couple times since that night. When he wasn’t fighting monsters, Addison kept it in a metal locker that filled a corner of this “office.”
“Aha!” Addison straightened and set a leather belt beside the daggers. The sheaths strapped to it clapped together. “You’ll have to be specific; I have many swords.” There was a room in the back of this very building full of weapons, but they were blunted for training.
Alice twisted her lips to the side and leveled a look at him. “You know the one I’m talking about.”
“Well, firstly: It’s not a Figment Blade, and secondly: I’m not human, meaning I don’t have Muchness, so I need a little something extra.” According to Addison, he could destroy a Nightmare’s physical body, but it would just re-form after a while. Since Nightmares were a manifestation of humanity’s fears, humans were the only ones who could put them down permanently. That’s why people like him trained people like her.
“And last: you play too much.” She narrowed her eyes at him, but there was no real heat behind it. “Talkin’ ’bout some ‘you’ll have to be specific.’ Specific deeze.”
Addison grinned, his dimples popping into view, as he came around from behind the desk and tilted against the front of it. In the harsh fluorescent lighting his hair was dark green, his eyes a subtle though somewhat rainbowy gray. Piercings lined his left ear, shining silver as he cocked his head to the side. Metal glinted over the rest of him, too: the studs in his shirt at the shoulders, the chain around his hips, the zippers and buckles on his boots. A punk rock Prince Charming. Damn, he was fine. Lucky for him.
She turned her attention to the weapons, picking one up, the ivory warm in her palm. “This what you wanted to show me? I mean they’re cool and all, but you made it sound like you had some big surprise set up.”
“Those are now yours, luv.”
Alice nearly dropped the dagger. “For real?”
He nodded, his smile widening. “You’re ready.”
She jerked straight in her chair. “So soon?”
“I wouldn’t call three months soon, but yeah. I knew there was something special about you.” He angled forward, closing off a bit of the space between them.
Heat filled Alice’s face. She turned her attention to the weapons, hoping he couldn’t see her blush. Not that she actually turned red or anything—she don’t blush for real, for real. “Special how?”
“Well, you were able to see me, for one thing.”
She smiled. “Hard to miss a dude stabbing a monster to death three feet in front of you.”
“That’s not the p—I’m trying to be serious and give you a compliment. May I get through my serious compliment?”
Alice lifted her hands, fighting laughter. “Excuse the hell outta me for having eyeballs.”
“That somehow see me even when I mean not to be.” Addison narrowed his eyes before folding his arms over his chest. “Nope. Never mind, moment’s ruined. I now deem you unspecial. Give the daggers back.”
“Wait—” The laughter burst free.
“Nope! Damage is done. Come on, hand them over.”
“No, no,” Alice said, still laughing as she waved off his reaching hands. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“And they’re so fragile.” He grabbed for one of the daggers.
“Waaaiiiiiiit.” She pressed her hand over his, still snickering. “Go on, serious compliment away.”
He watched her, his eyes crinkling at the corners as he fought his own smile. “Where was I?”
“I was special.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
He finally chuckled. “Right, then.” Lifting her hand and the dagger she still clutched, he curled her fingers around it and his fingers around hers. “I knew you were special. That’s why I told you about the Veil, the monsters that cross it, and my duty to stop them. Well, my duty to train someone to stop them. I have trained three others before you, and none of them learned so quickly. It was a pleasant surprise.”
Hell, if Addison was surprised, she was floored. He gave her a sword to start, and it was like she’d been carrying the thing her whole life. Maybe not her whole life—she did smash a table once. And a few chairs. On accident. But when she got her hands on a pair of daggers, that was a whole different story. It was like in the movies where someone says something about becoming one with the weapon, blah blah, it’s an extension of your body, blah. No joke, it really felt like that, like her body somehow knew what to do. She still had to practice, though. A lot.
“I had motivation.” More like a need to beat the shit out of something. Ever since her dad died, whenever Alice was alone she was just so … angry. She swallowed it. Bottled it up. Her mom needed her. Her grandma needed her. She got through the funeral. She got through the first days back at school. She cried. She hugged it out. But she wanted to punch things.
So when Addison presented her with the chance to be like him, to kill monsters that crept across what he called the Veil, a border between the real world and the world he came from, a realm of dreams called Wonderland, well … she called him crazy. Then she apologized; that was rude.
But she’d seen the monster. She’d smelled the damn thing. She’d felt its breath hot on her face, and after going back to that alley near the hospital the next week and seeing that stain on the concrete, after talking with him out in the open and noticing how no one else seemed to notice him, she decided to take him up on his offer.
“Alice?” Addison’s voice sliced through her thoughts.
“Hmm? What?” She blinked up at him, her cheeks warm again. “Sorry.”
“Right in the middle of my serious complimenting.” He huffed, but she could tell he didn’t mean it. “Where’d you go this time?”
“I was thinking about that night.” And meeting him, but “that night” was safer. “And how everything changed.”
“Mmm. Well, it’s about to change again. Strap those on.” He gestured to the daggers, then pushed away from the desk.
Alice fought with the belt for a few seconds before managing to get it fastened around her waist. Her hands shook, a combination of nerves and excitement. For three months she’d been coming here, learning how to fight with a handful of blunt weapons. When she figured those out, Addison said he would give her real ones and take her across the Veil. Now, it was happening. Like, for real, for real. These were real daggers hanging from her hips.
She pressed her fingertips to the hilts again, just to make sure. Dude. This is really going down. She took a slow breath. Keep it together, Kingston.
“You ready?” Addison stood at the door, holding it open for her.
Alice swallowed and nodded. “Y-yeah, yeah.” She followed him out into the hall.
“Need to let Maddi know we’re going through.” He led the way out to the main part of the building that had served as her training grounds.
The Looking Glass pub was every bit the midtown Atlanta dive it pretended to be, from the mirrored wall of liquor behind the bar to the pool tables, high-top tables, and chairs grouped on the worn wood floor. Strategically mounted TVs meant you could see a number of shows or games from any spot on the floor. Her first time here she didn’t believe this was some secret gateway to another world; it just looked like a bar.
“Looks can be deceiving, which is the point,” Addison had said.
A patchwork of memorabilia from ages past covered the pub’s walls. Hats, pocket watches, monocles, beat-up old canes and parasols, photographs of flappers in Paris and World War II vets in London, an autographed picture of someone named the Big Bopper. A cacophony of sight.
A cat-shaped clock hung on the wall behind the bar—the creepy kind where the huge eyes swish back and forth while the tail wags to mark the passing seconds. Black stripes covered its dark purple body. A grin spread beneath its wiry whiskers.
Underneath the clock, Maddi mopped the countertop in slow, lazy circles with a dingy rag. A mousy girl with a round, brown face, she was the pub’s bartender, although Alice believed she took more naps than she mixed drinks. On cue, Maddi yawned, covering her mouth with the rag.
Alice grimaced. Gross.
Like Addison, Maddi was from Wonderland. The two of them were stationed here to keep an eye on one of four openings in the Veil, called Gateways. As a front, they opened the Looking Glass, a functioning bar with drinks and food and regulars, which just happened to have a portal to another realm in the back. Addison owned it. He and Maddi looked young, late teens, early twenties, but they were both super old. Like, immortal old. Still fine, though. They looked like regular people until you got a good look at them, especially their eyes.
“Madeline.” Addison knocked against the bar as he stepped up to it. “I’m taking Alice through.”
Maddi blinked her big blue eyes slowly. With each fall of her lids, the color of her irises shifted, first green, then brown. “Whistle while you work?”
“Yup. She’s ready.”
A thrill slid through Alice at those words. She’d worked so hard. So many long hours, sleepless nights, and sore-as-hell days. This was it, though. She made it. She just had to keep telling herself that. And to breathe.
Addison ducked around behind the bar, glass clinking as he searched for something. He emerged with three small vials of purple liquid, most likely Maddi’s handiwork. The girl was a bomb-ass Poet, but not in the Still I Rise way.
In Wonderland, Poets were like witches or wizards, mixing potions and wielding the magical essence of the realm in spells called Verses.
Alice never saw Maddi do more than mix mild potions to help Alice heal faster after training. Still, the stronger the Poet, the more potent the Verse, and the weirder they talked as a result. Alice figured Maddi was powerful as hell, the way she barely made sense half the time.
“Hold the fort—we’ll be back in a tick,” Hatta said.
Maddi saluted with the rag. There weren’t humanlike races in Wonderland, at least not the way it was in the real world, but people had different skin tones and features. Maddi, with her warm, copper complexion and high, round cheekbones looked almost Latina to Alice. Addison was white. Like, super white, saying stuff like “in a tick.” They both spoke English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Russian, and pretty much every other language on the planet. That’s what happens when your homeland is the collective unconscious of the entire world.
Hatta offered Alice his arm. “Let’s go, luv.”
While the front of the building housed the pub, the back was a labyrinth of hallways and random-ass rooms. Bathrooms. Bedrooms. A kitchen. Hatta and Maddi lived here after all. There was even a room that looked like a hotel somewhere downtown, had windows and everything. It was fake—the building was magic, but still, it was wild.
Alice wondered which of these rooms held the Gateway. She’d never seen it, and now she had that feeling like getting ready to open Christmas presents: giddy, bubbly, and kinda worried that you wouldn’t like what you got. It was as if her stomach didn’t know if it wanted to do the butterfly thing or tie itself in knots. It left her feeling gassy and decidedly unhero-like.
Keep. It. Together. Kingston.
Addison stopped in front of a ratty-looking door. Inside, he flipped on the light.
Alice blinked, staring at the buckets in the corner and the shelves lined with stacks of toilet paper, towels, and cleaning supplies. The sharp scent of bleach hit her nose. “A broom closet?” Was he playin’ with her?
“The last place you’d look for an interdimensional doorway, right?” Addison bowed and waved her in. “After you, milady.”
Shaking her head, Alice stepped into the narrow space.
Addison followed, shutting the door behind them. Then he took a moment to strap a sword Alice hadn’t noticed he’d been carrying—he was always pulling things out of the air—onto his back. It wasn’t the big Fuck Off black one, but it looked dangerous enough. “Okay, the next bit is a tad … intense. It’s probably best if you hold on to me.”
Alice blinked. “Hold on to you.”
“The first time through can be a bit rough.”
“Um.” She cleared her throat before swallowing thickly. “All right. How should I—” She stepped forward, lifting an arm to wrap around his shoulders mindful of the sheath. “Like this?”
He nodded, watching her with those slightly shimmering eyes. “Whatever you’re comfortable with, so long as you’ve got a good grip.”
“Right.” Alice stepped in a little closer, trying to concentrate on anything but how he smelled faintly of spiced rum, cologne, and something sweet she couldn’t place.
His arm slipped under hers, hooking around her back. The other reached out to flip the switch, plunging them into darkness.
“Last chance to back down,” he murmured, his lips near her ear. “You’ve accomplished a lot. No one will think less of you.”
She couldn’t say she hadn’t thought about walking away—he was talking about fighting monsters—but she wanted this. Needed it. She shook her head, then nodded quickly. “No, no, I’m ready.”
“Here we go,” he warned. His voice rippled through her.
The ground dropped, and a sudden sense of falling yanked her stomach against her diaphragm. She screamed, the sound lost to a howl of wind and thunder. Her heart thrashed in her chest. Her hair slapped at her cheeks and ears. She latched on to Addison.
I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die!
Light burst across her vision. She shut her eyes against the sting and buried her face in Addison’s chest. His arms tightened around her. His hand cupped the back of her head. The shrieking rush grew louder, drowning out the pounding in her ears.
She whimpered. Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease …
When solid ground pushed up beneath her feet, her knees buckled. She would’ve dropped if not for the arms holding her up.
Everything in her stomach curdled, her last meal climbing toward the back of her throat. Shoving away from Addison, she stumbled across the floor toward what looked like a rosebush and threw up everything in her gut.
“Oh god,” she groaned between retches.
A hand pressed between her shoulders. Addison knelt beside her, his brow furrowed. “Told you it would be rough.”
“Rough? No, Mondays are rough. The first few days of your period are rough. That?” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Was three kinds of hell.” She groaned again, spitting to clear her mouth of that coppery taste. “Uck.”
“Here.” Addison offered one of the vials. “You can rinse your mouth out.”
She snatched the vial. “You coulda warned me I’d puke all over the place.”
“Didn’t expect you would.” He shrugged. “Wouldn’t have helped, anyway.”
She tipped the rim against her lips. The liquid was cool and minty with a hint of … banana? After swishing thoroughly, she spit it out at the roots of the rosebush as well, and was wiping her mouth when she realized those weren’t roses.
It was definitely a bush, though the coloring was off, more blue than green, but the bursts of red she thought were flowers were actually little orbs of what she could describe only as fluffy light. The tufts glistened softly, shivering as they hovered close together. Alice stared, filled with a sudden want to see what they felt like, but also an understanding that touching random shit is how people lose fingers.
“That is a Flit.” Addison stood and offered her a hand. “They grow here in the Glow.”
“The—” Alice took his hand, glanced up, and froze.
They stood on one side of a marble terrace, the surface opalescent. Pillars cut from the same material encircled the structure, giving it the look of an ancient, open temple. At the center, the very air had split but was falling closed with a sucking sputter. The world filled in the open space, leaving the structure whole. It shone, reflecting the light from the forest surrounding it. From the trees’ silver bark to their sparkling leaves, everything glistened as if spun from glass.
“Glow,” Addison finished. He guided Alice along the terrace. The clap of their shoes resonated outward. The pillars hummed faintly in response, like massive tuning forks. The sound rose into the air and then fizzled out as they moved down a set of steps to the ground below.
Addison shifted around in front of her, and she looked to him, her eyes widening. Her breath caught, just as it had the night they met. Everything about him had changed and yet … not. He was brighter, his skin moon-kissed, his hair more pale than moss green now. It stood up a bit instead of pressing against his head. And his eyes, now more silver than gray, glowed gold at their center.
His smile was exactly the same, though, stretching his face in that way that always left her feeling warm. He swept his hand out in a wide gesture. “Welcome to Wonderland.”
Copyright © 2018 by Leatrice McKinney