Title: Choices (4/?)
Pairing: Alice/Mirana (White Queen)
Rating: PG-13, for now
Disclaimer: If you recognize them, chances are they aren't mine.
Summary: It's the choices we make that make us who we are.
The worst part about realizing you've just traveled between worlds (again) was having no idea just where you were, now.
It wasn't Earth. It wasn't Underland. It wasn't even Neverland. Alice had no idea how many choices that left, and frankly, part of her was afraid to find out. All she really wanted to know was what was going on. She needed answers.
Yes, and you're certainly likely to get them by standing here, staring up at the sky.
She took one last look at the turbulent clouds, then headed back inside. The room the balcony was attached to seemed to be a sitting room of some kind, or perhaps a study or an office. It was sparsely decorated, leading her to suspect it hadn't been used much even before... Well, whatever had happened to leave the building so deserted.
A quick search turned up nothing of interest, so she was forced to exit the study and resume making her way down the hall. By now, she knew she had no hope of finding Hook again except by complete accident, but hopefully the meeting he'd been summoned for would keep whoever he'd gone there to see too busy to notice her.
She came to an intersection where she noticed an odd chill in the air. She wasn't sure why her instincts told her to look around until she spotted a transparent figure hovering in one of the hallways, looking at her. It looked like a woman... or like it had been. She'd never seen a ghost before, but it wasn't difficult to figure out just what was facing her now.
The woman's features were blurred and indistinct, but the weight to her gaze was unmistakable. Caution, Alice decided, was most definitely called for. "Hello? Who are you?" she asked softly.
The ghost's mouth moved, but it seemed more like it was speaking into her mind then aloud. "You're not supposed to be here."
"No one stopped me from coming," she replied. If the spirit decided it wanted to reveal her presence, there would be precious little she would be able to do to stop it, so convincing it not to was her only hope. "Why shouldn't I be here?"
The ghost laughed, coming into focus enough for Alice to make out stern features and an untamed mess of brown curls on her head. "Because the Mistress will tear your soul from your body and make you watch as she kills you, fool!"
"Is that what she did to you?" Alice asked, torn between sympathy and horror.
"Oh, yes! And I have no one to blame but myself." She laughed again, but there was a bitter edge to it. "I tried to escape, to take back what was rightfully mine! They had no right, no right, to take it from me!"
"Who didn't? What did they take?"
It was as if she hadn't even spoken. "I wanted to summon the most fearful creature any of them had ever seen to do my bidding, to make them suffer beyond what their pitiful minds could comprehend. Instead, she came. If they hadn't reduced my powers so, I could have withstood her, but as I was... She stole my life, taking it as her own. She wanted to come back, you see, back to kill, back to conquer, back to rule."
"Who is? Who are you?"
"She bound me to this place, helpless to do anything but watch, unable to move on." She cackled, further convincing Alice that this ghost was far more mad then even the Hatter had ever managed. "I know what awaits me, and I do not fear it. You're the one she's after, aren't you? " She cackled again, then quickly began floating down a hallway. Alice, momentarily taken aback, had to hurry after her.
She halted in her tracks when they emerged into a room that gave the impression it had been carved from solid gold. The floor, the walls, the columns, the ceiling, everything gleamed so brightly it nearly blinded her. When her eyes had adjusted enough to see clearly, the ghost was gone. "Well," she remarked to Petunia, "that's the second person I've lost track of since coming here. I do hope that doesn't become a habit."
"I see you've met Mombi," a new voice said, and she whirled around to find... no one. "You're lucky, in a way. Barely anyone can get a coherent conversation from her, these days. Little wonder, though, considering."
She looked around the room carefully. Now that she could actually see what she was looking at, she noticed that the solid gold motif was broken up by splashes of red here and there - though there seemed to be more then there really was due to the reflections that appeared in the polished gold - and mirrors lining the walls. The throne on the raised platform made it clear just what kind of room she'd wandered into, though she was still in the dark as to where exactly she was. The only thing she saw that in any way resembled a clue was a bas-relief circle with a 'Z' inside it. It took her a moment to realize the circle was actually an 'O'. "O.Z.? What does that stand for?" she wondered aloud.
"It's the symbol of the land of Oz," the voice told her, and this time she caught a blur of movement in one of the mirrors. "That's where you are. I am Ozma, Queen of this realm."
Relieved to be getting straight answers at last, she turned to look at it. Reflected there was a beautiful woman around her own age with golden blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing a dazzling green gown and a tiara with the Oz symbol on it. The only problem was there was no one standing in the room to be casting that reflection. "Your majesty," Alice said in greeting, dipping her head briefly in respect. She did not bow, as this was not her queen, but it didn't feel right to just stand there, either. She walked over to the mirror. "Can you tell me what's happening?"
"What I know of it, at any rate." Ozma sighed and began pacing, moving from one mirror to another to another, then back again. "I cannot leave the palace, and my imprisonment prevents me from accessing the Magic Picture."
"The wh- No, that can wait," Alice decided. "Why... How are you in that mirror?"
Ozma smiled mirthlessly as she paced. "I am here because being forced to stand idle while my land is besieged, my people attacked, is intolerable to me. Ironically, I was once imprisoned thusly by Mombi herself, many years ago. This time, though, more then just Oz is in danger."
"So I've noticed. Why bring back Hook, though?"
"Being trapped somewhere between death and life herself, she is able to control the dead. Her preferred method of keeping her underlings in line seems to be killing them, then forcing them to serve her."
Alice shivered. To have your life torn from you, then to be forced into eternal servitude, with no chance for moving on... It was simply monstrous.
And it sounded disturbingly like something within Mirana's abilities, if she ever REALLY went mad.
That reminded her... "Why come after me, though? I had no idea any of this was going on until the pirates attacked, and no way off my own ship to go anywhere for some time."
Ozma paused in her pacing, looking at Alice curiously. "Who are you?"
"I-" She looked around the room warily, not caring that she couldn't see any sign that someone else was listening to them. "I'll tell you later."
Ozma nodded in understanding. "To continue, then, we were taken by surprise by this attack, and the Emerald City was quickly overcome by the malevolent spirits and monsters at her command. The Good Witches of the North and South were able to keep her forces confined within the city, though her lengthy absences cause me to question to what degree."
"Who is she?" Alice asked again, frustrated.
The look Ozma gave her was as serious as the grave. "The self-proclaimed 'Mistress of All Evil'.
The sun was terribly late, the naughty thing.
It was fortunate, he decided, that he had plenty of lamps to give him enough light to work by. Those dismal clouds outside barely provided any illumination. Really, how could a man be expected to produce quality hats if he couldn't see what he was doing?
All in all, though, Tarrant Hightopp was pleased enough with his situation.
The far more peaceful atmosphere of Marmoreal was much more conducive to work then the oppression that had hung heavy in the air at Salazen Grum. True, the White Queen herself didn't really require much in the way of hats, given that she already wore a crown, but there were plenty in court that did make use of his services. And if he ever wanted to hat anyone from a nearby town or village, he knew the queen would have no problem with that whatsoever.
Especially these days, when she had far bigger concerns to occupy her attention.
He had asked - more then once - if there was anything she could do to help, but the queen had simply smiled and assured him that if she needed him for something, she wouldn't hesitate to ask. Her soldiers were stationed all over the kingdom, with the far more numerous playing cards farther out, while the chess pieces tended to be closer to Marmoreal. This strategy had been working so far, as one or two of either kind of knight was enough to handle any one of the assorted creatures that had appeared, but it had the result of leaving Marmoreal virtually undefended.
So he remained, ready to be called upon at a moment's notice. Most of his information about the current state of things came from Mally, who was off somewhere, even then, doing reconnaissance. And while he waited, he hatted.
"Ah, Tarrant," a voice purred from seemingly nowhere. "Still hard at work, I see."
He didn't bother looking around. Chessur would show himself when he was good and ready, and not one minute sooner. "I've told you, Ches, I don't know how to make a hat that would evaporate with you."
A faint chuckle, then Chessur materialized in front of him, hovering in front of his work desk. "Perhaps I was only stopping in to say goodbye to yours before I left."
Fighting down an urge to protectively cradle his hat, he asked, "And where are you off to?"
The Cheshire Cat swam leisurely through the air, circling him. "You've not looked out a window in some time, have you? Our queen seems to have made some headway in her struggle, and has asked me to see what effect that's had on the situation in Underland."
Hmm. Perhaps he had been a bit too focused on his latest creation - though he thought he could hardly be blamed for that, as it was rather gorgeous, and he was sure that the young lady he was making it for would be delighted with it. "That sounds time consuming, even for you."
A feline shrug answered him. "Perhaps, perhaps not. In any event, I may well be back before you know it, if you continue to ignore everything around you." Chessur vanished as he added, "Why, if you're not careful, that hat of yours could disappear, and you wouldn't even know it."
Pure reflex had him checking to make sure his hat was still on his head - it was - before he shook his head and chuckled. Ches hadn't come out and said it, but the cat obviously thought he'd been working too hard, and had been worried about his friend. He'd certainly changed from the old days, when he been concerned with very little beyond himself.
That attitude had been somewhat understandable, as no one - not even Tarrant - had any idea how old the Cheshire Cat was. He hadn't seemed to have aged a day since they'd first met, all those years ago. Tarrant personally thought Ches didn't age at all. He would hardly be the first ageless being to exist in Underland: The Bandersnatch and the Jabberwocky sprang to mind almost immediately. They all had something else in common, as well.
They'd all been seriously affected during Alice's second visit to Underland.
Of course, he'd be hard pressed to find someone he knew that hadn't. However much she may have resisted her role at first, the young champion had touched and inspired everyone she came across. Really, it was a shame she hadn't been able to stay. He thought even Mally had warmed up to her by the end.
Not to mention that, well... She hadn't said anything, but Tarrant had known Mirana for many years, so he could tell that she, especially, missed Alice considerably. Perhaps a bit more then mere friendship would allow for, but he chose not to speculate about such matters.
Perhaps he would take a short break from his work. His current project was almost finished, after all, and he could do with a bit of fresh air. He wasn't terribly worried about the situation, truth be told. After all, they'd already overthrown the Bloody Big Head and slain the Jabberwocky.
What could possibly be worse then that?
"Maleficent?" Alice echoed. "Should I know who that is?"
Ozma shook her head, almost smiling. "No, and I do apologize if I implied otherwise. During your world's 14th century, in a kingdom ruled by a man named Stefan, the princess Aurora, while still an infant, was betrothed to the also-young Prince Phillip, son of King Hubert, so that the kingdoms of Stefan and Hubert would be forever united. At her christening, the Three Good Fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather came to bless her. Flora gave her the gift of beauty while Fauna gave her the gift of song. However, before Merryweather was able to give her blessing, the evil fairy Maleficent appeared, expressing disappointment in not being invited to Aurora's christening ceremony. She then cursed the princess to die when she touched a spinning wheel's spindle before the sun set on her sixteenth birthday. After Maleficent left, Merryweather was able to use her blessing to weaken the curse so that instead of death, Aurora fell into a deep sleep until, to be awakened by true love's kiss. Though King Stefan decreed all spinning wheels in the kingdom burned, the Three Good Fairies knew Maleficent's curse could not be stopped so easily, and devised a plan to protect her. With the king and queen's consent, they disguised themselves as peasant women and snuck Aurora away with them to a woodland cottage until her sixteen birthday lapsed, passing themselves off as her aunts and swearing off magic to conceal themselves."
"How do you know this?" Alice asked. She knew she shouldn't have interrupted, but couldn't quite help it.
Fortunately, Ozma didn't take offense. "At times, when she is in the proper mood, I've been able to get Maleficent to talk about a few things other then the havoc she's been causing. And before my court scattered and fled, I was able to sneak one or two of them into my boudoir to use the Magic Picture to find out more."
"You mentioned that picture before," Alice noted. "What is it?"
"It usually appears to be of a pleasant countryside, but when anyone wishes for the picture to show a particular person or place, the scene will display what is wished for. Unfortunately, the only mirror in that room is a looking glass that is nowhere near it."
"If you took me there, could I make use of it?"
"Yes, but my chambers are locked quite securely. Either she suspects that someone may sneak into the palace to try and aid me, or she thinks the pirates may try to steal it." She smiled briefly. "In that, she's likely correct. But please, allow me to finish my story first. Years later, Aurora, renamed Briar-Rose, had grown into a gorgeous young woman with the blessings that Flora and Fauna bestowed to her. Sweet and gentle, she dreamt of falling in love one day."
"That was all she wanted?" Alice shook her head. "I know this was the 14th century, but still..."
"Don't forget, she was quite sheltered, growing up," Ozma reminded her. "But this story is only partly about her. By that time, Maleficent had become quite vexed at her minions' incompetence in locating the princess and sent her raven familiar, Diablo, to look for Aurora. For whatever reason, on the day of her sixteenth birthday, the fairies did something with their magic that caught Diablo's attention. Meanwhile, Aurora encountered Prince Phillip, now a handsome young man, as he was out riding his horse in the woods. When they met, they instantly fell in love, Phillip believing her to be a peasant girl. Realizing that she had to return home, Aurora fled from Phillip without ever learning his name. Despite promising to meet him again, the fairies, not knowing that the man Aurora met was the prince, revealed the truth of her birth to her and took her to her parents and her betrothed's family insisting that she never see him again, much to her dismay. Meanwhile, Phillip returned home telling his father of a peasant girl he met and wished to marry in spite of his prearranged marriage to Princess Aurora."
Good for him, Alice decided. She'd never been fond of the idea of arranged marriages, even before she'd nearly been pushed into one herself.
"In the castle, Maleficent used her magic to lure Aurora away from her boudoir and up to a tower, where a spinning wheel awaited her. Fascinated by the wheel with Maleficent's will enforcing it, Aurora touched the spindle, pricking her finger and completing the curse. The good fairies placed Aurora on a bed and sent all in the kingdom into a deep ageless sleep until the spell was broken. While falling asleep, King Hubert tried to tell Stefan of his son being in love with a peasant girl, which caused Flora realize that Prince Phillip was the man Aurora has fallen in love with, and they flew back to the cottage for him since his love for Aurora would break the spell. At that time, Prince Phillip arrived at the cottage, but was captured by Maleficent's minions and taken to the dungeons of her lair, "The Forbidden Mountain", to prevent him from kissing Aurora. However, the fairies snuck into Maleficent's stronghold and freed the prince. Armed with the magical Sword of Truth and The Shield of Virtue, Phillip and the fairies escaped from the Forbidden Mountain whilst being attacked by Maleficent's minions, which the fairies succeed in blocking. When Diablo tried to warn Maleficent, Merryweather chased him and eventually killed him by turning him into a stone statue, alerting Maleficent. The prince braved all obstacles Maleficent throws at him to reach the palace, including a large bush of thorns, before battling Maleficent herself when she transformed into a gigantic fire-breathing dragon. After a long fight in which his shield is destroyed, Phillip threw the sword, blessed by the fairies' magic, directly into Maleficent's heart, causing Maleficent to fall to her death from a cliff, leaving nothing but her robe and the sword now black.
"After that, of course, Phillip climbed to Aurora's chamber, and removed the curse with a kiss. They all lived happily ever after, but as Maleficent proved, dead and gone are two separate things. She slowly gathered her strength, until at last she was able to break through from the land of the dead. It must have been quite a shock to her to find how civilized your world had become, for you see, in the civilized countries there are no witches left; nor wizards, nor sorceresses, nor magicians. The Land of Oz, however, has never been 'civilized' in such a fashion, and thus still contains magic in abundance." She frowned and began talking quietly to herself. "I do worry what will become of Oz when civilization spreads here, as well. There must be a way to ensure that magic will endure..."
Alice waited for several moments, then quietly cleared her throat. "Um, Maleficent?"
Ozma blushed lightly. "My apologies. As I was saying, she came to Oz and took over the palace, stripping me of most of my magic. She could not use it herself, for it was from the living, and was also inherently good, incompatible with her evilness. Instead, she formed it into a belt that she then locked away somewhere far away from me. Once I was imprisoned, her forces spread out into the city to search."
"Search for what?"
"The emerald. In the distant past, so long ago that her name is lost, an evil witch attempted to use an emerald of great power to conquer the Land of Oz. It's written that the forces of good stopped her before her power could eclipse all others, and a great city of emeralds was built, to hide it so that none could ever again attempt to bury the land in darkness. She hasn't found it, yet, nor will she. The only place any clue to its location might be found is in the Great Book of Records, and that is safely in the hands of Glinda the Good." Then, knowing what Alice was likely to ask next, Ozma continued, "In this book is inscribed everything that takes place in all the world, just the instant it happens; so that by referring to its pages Glinda knows what is taking place far and near, in every country that exists."
"And yet she was unable to prevent Maleficent's return," Alice noted. Still, though, this 'Great Book' sounded rather like the Ozian equivalent to the Oraculum. Was that why Maleficent had set her sights on Underland?
"The Book would not have told her it was happening until it had already begun," Ozma defended. "In any event, Maleficent then began setting her sights on other worlds. I don't know why, as she refuses to tell me anything that might potentially be useful to me, unless she can torment me by doing so."
Ozma sighed. "There are only two ways to be free of my imprisonment. Either I can be released as before, by my champion... or I can surrender the Ruby Slippers to Maleficent. If she had those... In the right hands, they are objects of great power. With them, she would have no need of an emerald, or anything else she might seek. There would be no stopping her. However, while I may not have been able to stop her, I was able to send them away, to where she cannot follow."
"And your champion?" Alice felt a flicker of excitement. She would love to be able to meet another champion, someone who might truly understand everything she'd gone through.
Ozma's smile returned in full force as her eyes warmed. "Dorothy Gale. Twice before has she saved Oz from the wicked and corrupt. I have used the Magic Picture to keep in touch with her over the years. More then just my champion, she is my friend." And more then that, Alice judged, if the look in Ozma's eyes was any indication. Now she was even more keen to talk with this Dorothy. "I fear that this would be too much for her to handle alone, however, so it is just as well that I cannot call her."
"What if she weren't alone?" Alice asked. "What if she had help?"
Ozma studied her carefully. "Even so, I cannot summon her from here. Truthfully, I do not believe I could even do so free, with so much of my power gone."
"What did Maleficent say about releasing you?" Alice pressed. "Exactly what?" A theory was beginning to form in her mind, but she hesitated to give it voice just yet, not wanting to pointlessly get Ozma's hopes up if she was wrong.
Ozma continued studying her for several more moments, then slowly said, "She told me that only the touch of a champion truly devoted to her queen could break the spell holding me here. Perhaps she believed that, after so long, even Dorothy would not be devoted enough to me to accomplish that." Clearly, Ozma didn't agree, giving Alice a hint as to where she might have sent those slippers to.
Alice raised a hand and placed it against the mirror. Not looking like she expected anything to happen, Ozma did the same. And for a moment, nothing did happen... then it did. The glass seemed to ripple where their hands met, and Alice's fingers sunk into the mirror. It was the most curious thing she'd ever felt, like reaching into a thick, silvery liquid that was somehow completely dry.
Living flesh touched her own, and she grabbed onto Ozma's hand and pulled. Looking astonished, the queen of Oz stepped free of the mirror. "How...?"
Alice smiled. "Just a little loophole." During the negotiations in China that she'd been party to, she'd become well acquainted with the concept of looking for possible loopholes that the other side might seek to exploit. "Maleficent made it clear that only a champion truly devoted to her queen could free you, but she never said that queen had to be you."
Ozma's lips quirked into a smile as she let go of Alice's hand. "Your name wouldn't happen to be Alice, would it?"
Alice smiled back at her. "In fact, it would." She lost her smile quickly. "Will she know that you're free?"
Ozma considered that. "Possibly. The fact that she hasn't come running yet, though, indicates she may not."
"Either way, it would be a good idea to be somewhere else when she does."
"Indeed. First, to the Magic Picture. I would know what has been going on in my realm that Maleficent has not seen fit to share with me. After that..." Her expression hardened. "After that, we must seek out some method of destroying Maleficent once and for all."
She headed for a door Alice hadn't even noticed, hidden among the mirrors. "Can we not simply defeat her the same way Prince Phillip did?" Alice asked as she followed along behind her. Could you really speak of 'slaying' someone who was already dead? Alice wondered.
Ozma sighed. "Possibly. But I have no idea what became of the Sword of Truth, and even if I did, from what Maleficent's story says, it was corrupted badly in killing her the first time. I doubt it would work now. So, unless you know of some other magical, dragon-slaying sword..."
Alice allowed herself a mysterious smile. "Oh, you'd be surprised..." Finally, she had a valid reason to head straight to Underland. No more jumping from one random world to the next, no more chasing undead pirates, just Mirana. Because while dragons were not the same as Jabberwocks, she knew - she knew, on some deep, fundamental level - that the Vorpal Sword could take care of Maleficent.
They snuck carefully and quietly through the palace. They encountered no one, but Alice warned Petunia to stay out of sight in the event that they did, as from what she'd picked up from Ozma's story, Maleficent seemed to really hate fairies. True, they didn't seem to be the same kind of fairy that Petunia was, but why take foolish chances?
Ozma's boudoir proved to be easy enough to get into, as, despite her nearly non-existent magic, the palace seemed to recognize her, and let them in without complaint. The room was sparsely furnished, making Alice suspect that, despite the ostentatiousness of the throne room, Ozma preferred more understated decor. There was an antique looking glass against one wall, a couch and a few scattered chairs, a gorgeously detailed carved wooden desk, and no portraits on the wall... except one.
The Magic Picture did indeed display a rather pleasant countryside, right up until Ozma marched over to it and commanded, "Show me the Emerald City." The image glowed and vanished, replaced by a view of an intact but seemingly deserted city. It switched to another view, and another, and another, but they all told the same story. The city was there, but the people weren't. Ozma bit her lip, then shook her head and said, "Show me Glinda the Good."
The picture changed to display a beautiful woman in a pure white dress working at a desk that was somehow neatly organized yet covered with papers. Her hair was a dusky blondish shade, somewhere between blonde and red. "Glinda!" Ozma shouted, and the woman looked up in surprise.
"Ozma! Thank goodness you're free." She got to her feet and walked around the desk to head toward the picture, making Alice suspect there was something on Glinda's end that was acting as a receiver of sorts. "Are you all right?"
"I haven't been physically harmed, if that's what you mean. What happened to all the people?" She didn't elaborate on who she was talking about, but Glinda seemed to understand.
"The evil ones were slow to spread out through the city - I suspect their leader was too preoccupied with dealing with you - giving the citizens ample time to evacuate."
Ozma sighed in relief, while Alice frowned. 'Their leader'? That didn't sound like someone with an all-knowing Book at her disposal. "I don't suppose your Great Book of Records might say anything that could help us?"
Rather then be offended, Glinda smiled. "You must be Alice." Alice's frown deepened - she didn't like the idea of being mentioned in another compendium - as Glinda said, "The Book's latest entries have been increasingly obscure. I believe, though, that you already know what to do, and that you have all the necessary tools to do it. You must not tarry overlong, though. The latest counter-attack by your queen succeeded in pushing Maleficent back, but that will have made her all the more angry. What you are seeking is on the other side of the glass."
What did that mean? The only thing she'd seen that was on the other side of any glass was Ozma, who was currently going over a few more things with Glinda involving the citizens of Oz. Alice didn't pay much attention as Ozma attended to the state of her kingdom, knowing they'd call her if they needed her. She thought and thought, but was unable to discern the meaning of the witch's words. She knew that was likely due to the cryptic meaning of the words in the Book, but it was still vexing.
She looked up when she realized the room had fallen silent, and discovered that the Magic Picture had returned to its natural state, while Ozma stood off to the side, lost in thought. Glinda had warned them not to linger, but Alice had no idea where to go next, and from the look of her, neither did Ozma. She looked back at the Picture. Could it...? It's worth a try, she decided. "Show me Mirana of Marmoreal," she commanded it.
And there she was.
The White Queen was walking down a hallway, surrounded by advisers, ladies in waiting, and various other court members. "Mirana!" she called, disheartened when none of them gave any sign of hearing her. "Mirana!"
"She can't hear you," Ozma confirmed, stepping closer. "You would need a suitably prepared mirror on the other side for communication, especially across worlds."
"I was afraid of that," Alice admitted with a sigh. Still, it was good to know that Mirana was still in one piece and healthy, even if she did seem a bit tired. On a whim, Alice told the Magic Picture, "Show me Iracebeth of Crims."
The Magic Picture obediently changed images, and Alice sucked in a shocked breath. If not for the size of the figure's head, she never would have known she was looking at the former Red Queen. The woman displayed was filthy and wearing torn and tattered clothing. The light in the dungeon cell - for the dank room she was sitting on the floor of could be nothing else - was poor, but they could still tell that she was thin and emaciated. Clearly, prisoner care was not among Maleficent's priorities. And why was she a prisoner? "She's still alive, isn't she?"
"It does seem that way," Ozma agreed, just as surprised and dismayed as Alice. "Maleficent has said nothing of anyone named Iracebeth within my hearing, though, so I could not tell you why."
A thought struck Alice. "She practices - or practiced, at any rate - Dominion Over the Living."
Ozma considered that. "It's possible that made her incompatible with Maleficent's magic. Why she would keep her around, though..."
"Why would she wish to attack Underland at all?" Alice countered. "It seems to have brought her nothing but problems." She returned her attention to the Picture. "Show me Ilosovic Stayne."
And there he was, just as repulsive as she remembered. It was curious how being undead didn't seem to have changed him in the slightest. He was standing at attention near a woman wearing a black and purple robe with bat wing-like edges, who was berating a cringing Captain Hook. She was tall, slender, beautiful, with a narrow face and a prominent chin, yellow eyes and a horned headdress. What caught Alice's attention most, though, was her pale green skin. "Did she look like that before she died?"
Ozma smiled briefly, but her eyes remained hard as she stared at her captor. "Yes. The strange thing is, she's not the first green wicked woman who's sought to inflict harm upon the people of Oz."
They listened in silence for a minute longer, but it appeared that timing was not on their side. Maleficent wrapped up her scolding of Hook and sent him scurrying off without revealing anything that would be of any use to either of them. She shook her head as he departed. "Really, is it so hard to capture one young woman?"
"She does have a habit of summoning unlikely allies to her side to help her evade capture," Stayne remarked. "It caused the Red Queen no end of frustration."
"That hardly seems a difficult task," Maleficent said dryly. She frowned and tilted her head to the side, as if listening to something. "Perhaps I should have just had her killed on sight." She then turned to stare directly at the Magic Picture. "What do you think, my dear Ozma?"
Alice stiffened. "I thought you said she couldn't see or hear us without a properly prepared mirror."
"She can't," Ozma replied. "But, it seems, she can sense when she's being watched." She waved a hand, and the Magic Picture returned to its normal appearance.
It was too late, though. They were forced to take several steps back as a pillar of green fire appeared between them and the Magic Picture. The fire quickly resolved itself into the form of Maleficent. She carried a staff with a glowing green orb at the tip, and Alice instinctively moved to place herself between it and Ozma, raising her sword.
The wicked fairy studied her. "Well," she said finally, "you are not Dorothy Gale, are you? Unfortunate for you. And yet..." Her gaze drifted to Ozma, then back. Comprehension dawned. "Well, well. Miss Kingsleigh, is it?" She chuckled, a surprisingly pleasant sound. "Oh, now how did I miss that little loophole? Ah, well. Perhaps I shouldn't have berated poor James, so. He did accomplish his task, in the end, for here you are."
"What do you want with me?" Alice demanded, not bothering to waste time denying who she was. She could tell that wouldn't work.
"Why, I want you to be my guest," Maleficent replied pleasantly, smiling at her.
"No, thank you. I've seen how you treat your 'guests'."
"Are you referring to Mombi? You should know that, were she still alive, she would have tried to kill you and steal your head for her own use by now. Or perhaps you mean Iracebeth, who would slaughter everyone you know and love with a smile on her face."
"Don't tell me you actually believed her stories about being a kind and wise ruler," Maleficent scoffed. "She may not have people beheaded at the slightest offenses, but otherwise she is no better then your Red Queen was, indulging in her every childish whim and hang the consequences."
"That's a lie!" Ozma shouted, glaring at her. "You attack my kingdom, steal my magic, assault and murder my people, and now seek to disparage me?!"
"Calm down," Alice told her. "You're just giving her what she wants. And quite frankly, that's enough chatter." She lunged forward, driving the length of her blade through Maleficent's torso, just below her ribs.
Maleficent eyed her for a moment, then sighed and shook her head. "How juvenile," she remarked as she reached down and pulled it free. No blood escaped the hole it left behind, which rapidly disappeared before Alice's shocked gaze. "I'm disappointed in you, Miss Kingsleigh. That was terribly rude." She tossed the sword off to the side.
Alice didn't take her eyes off Maleficent to see where it landed. It didn't matter in any event, since a regular sword obviously wasn't going to do the job. Not that she'd really expected it to, but it had been worth a shot. "Why Underland?" she asked, partly to stall for time in which to think of another strategy, and partly because she really wanted to know.
Judging by her smile, Maleficent was fully aware of both of her reasons. "Stay here with me, and I'll tell you all about it. Who knows? Perhaps you could even manage to talk me out of any further attacks. I can make your time here quite... pleasant."
Ozma, still standing behind Alice, clutched her arm. "No! You can't trust her!"
"Don't worry, I'm hardly about to do that," Alice assured her. While the idea of being able to prevent any further attacks on Underland without any violence was tempting, she was not so foolish as to believe that would actually happen. It was puzzling, though, the way Maleficent kept trying to talk her into staying of her own free will. She'd shown no problem with trapping Mombi's spirit or imprisoning Ozma.
That, she decided, was something she could worry about later. Right now, they needed to get away. She doubted that Maleficent would just let them stroll out the door, and they were far too high to go out the window. True, Petunia's fairy dust might change that equation, but there really wasn't time to teach Ozma how to fly. The only other thing she could think of was the looking glass, and the way Ozma had been able to go from mirror to mirror before. Could that work again? Or maybe...
No, that was impossible.
Or was it?
"Now really, you're going to hurt my feelings if you keep insulting me like that," Maleficent said, voice dripping with false sorrow.
"Perhaps we should just leave, then," Alice replied, backing Ozma toward the mirror.
"So soon? I won't hear of it." The orb on her staff began glowing ominously. What she needed, Alice decided, was a distraction.
She got one, but not one that she would have chosen. Petunia abandoned her hiding spot under Alice's hair to dart out into the open and hover near Maleficent's face. The wicked fairy's expression contorted into one of rage. "A fairy," she spat. "I knew I should have obliterated Neverland as soon as I found it." She launched a bolt of lightning at Petunia, who dodged with amazing speed before streaking in to strike Maleficent's face, sending her staggering back a few steps. Obviously, she hadn't expected a physical attack.
This, Alice knew, was the best opening she was going to get. She turned, grabbed Ozma's hand, and dashed for the mirror. "We have to get to Underland," she said as quietly as possible, not wanting Maleficent to overhear.
If the several loud cracks of thunder behind them were any indication, she needn't have worried.
"We can't get there through a mirror," Ozma objected. "That's impossible!"
Recalling the wise words her friend the Hatter had told her once, Alice smiled and replied, "Only if you believe it is." And she believed that this mirror was a doorway back to her Wonderland. She really, truly did.
She walked forward and met with virtually no resistance as she stepped through the looking glass. "Petunia! We're leaving!" she called, and the tiny fairy abandoned her fight to zip to Alice's side. Alice looked back to see a look of surprise on Maleficent's face that might have been considered comical, if she wasn't sure it would shortly give way to murderous rage. "Thank you for your hospitality, but we really must be going, now," she said as she pulled Ozma through. Once she was sure Petunia was also through, she held up her hand and waved it from right to left, as she'd seen Ozma do. Maleficent and the rest of Ozma's boudoir disappeared from the glass, replaced with their reflections.
"Amazing," Ozma breathed, shaking her head in wonder.
Alice, however, was looking around their new surroundings. She was sure this was Underland - it had to be, or they wouldn't have been able to get away - but it wasn't any part of it that she was familiar with. Aside from the looking glass, there didn't seem to be anything around nearby beyond the dirt on the ground. Past that... "Oh, dear."
Ozma followed her gaze to see that they were standing in a bubble about a quarter of the size of her boudoir, with water on the other side, and the dim light straight up said that the bubble was located at the bottom of a deep lake.
"Well," Alice remarked as she looked up. "This could be a problem."