The Golden Paradigm
Big Bad Wolf
"You'll want to stay away from the quiches."
Henrietta looked up from the platter of hors d'oeuvre she'd been pretending to survey—so she could act as if she didn't notice the alarming amount of stares that were currently burning a hole into the back of her head—and clocked an orange tabby sitting next to the punch bowl. He flicked his bottle-brush tail, and scrutinized her with cunning, hooded eyes.
"I'm sorry, were you talking to me?" she asked.
"You don't see anyone else standing around here, do you?" the cat replied with a twitch of his whiskers.
"No, but I suppose I'm just not used to conversing with cats," Henrietta said politely. "And thank you for the head's up."
The cat lifted his haunches in what might have been a shrug, still watching her keenly. After a moment of silence, Henrietta said, a little stiffly, "Was there something else you wanted?"
"Oh, no," the cat said, grinning a grin that seemed far too big for his head. "I'm just here to watch the show, is all."
"What show is that?"
"What show is what?"
"What?" Henrietta said, utterly bemused. "But...You're the one that barking said it!"
"Rubbish," the cat scoffed. "Utterly impossible."
"How is it impossible? I just heard you."
"How could you have?" the cat demanded heatedly. "Cats most certainly do not bark. And I would have remembered such a silly thing, if I had."
Henrietta stared at the feline for a beat, then finally threw up her hands with a disgusted sound, and wondered if banging her head against something hard might be worth how cracked it would make her look.
"Wait, wait," she said, holding up her hands. "I think I know who you're supposed to be. You're the Cheshire Cat, aren't you?"
"Weren't you paying attention?" the Cat asked in a peevish, impatient voice. The color was slowly bleeding out of the stripes along his tail, leaving behind a coil of orange fur. "I already told you once."
"Oh, you did not!" Henrietta snapped.
"Well, I meant to," he returned primly. "Don't blow a gasket about it."
"Sure you did," she snorted, and shook her head. "Well, I suppose it's nice to meet you, then. But I really must be going now, before you continue to drive me batty."
"Bats in the belfry?" the Cheshire Cat said. His stripes had drained away completely now, leaving behind half a cat and a floating head. He cocked it at almost a ninety degree angle, his leer madder than ever and his purple eyes glittering. "A good sign of a healthy attic."
"I'm sure," Henrietta replied dryly. "Goodbye, Cheshire."
"Hello, Red Riding Hood," said the Cat's toothy grin, all that was left now, before it rolled over and vanished into thin air with a soft pop. Henrietta rolled her eyes and made her way towards the windows to see if there were any stars out. She was starting to think that stalking away from the Under Thing had been a bad idea. She could feel the stares more than ever, but every time she glanced around, everyone was looking the other way. But she could hear them whispering, snatches of conversation drifting in and out of hearing, and she itched with the distinct feeling of being talked about.
"Is that the contractor Valiant...?"
"...heard she belongs to that..."
"...I'd never put mine in such danger..."
"After all, she does look—"
And somehow without the Under Thing by her side, snarky beast that he was, she felt extremely exposed, out here in the open. She was starting to think she was surrounded by monsters now (or wolves in sheep's clothing) and she did not like the way some of them were watching her.
No, you're being ridiculous, she chided herself. It's only a dream. No need to get so worked up.
Well, that was what she told herself. But the longer she stood there, the worse her paranoia got, until she found herself scanning the crowd, hoping to catch a snatch of dusky violet hair or twisting black horns...
And that's when she saw him.
He stood out, because he seemed to be the only person who didn't look like he was enjoying himself. His dark attire didn't reveal much of anything, but the long frame beneath it suggested a lean figure and sinewy muscle. His head was down, and his eyes were hidden beneath a curtain of coarse, pitch-black hair, but she could see the scowl marring his features. He was almost slouching in his chair, and swirled the wine in his glass with sullen disinterest. No one else was seated at his table, though it was certainly large enough, and the other guests were giving his shadowed corner a wide berth.
In the next moment she found out why. As if he'd sensed someone watching, the dark creature looked up, looked right at her, and pinned her to the floor with the bone-chilling viciousness in his golden eye. It was only a fleeting, sidelong glance, a piercing flash of steel, over an instant that felt like a small eternity. But it jolted down her spine to twist her intestines into writhing knots.
Then someone walked into her line of vision, and the black figure was gone.
She hadn't realized she'd been holding her breath, and let it out shakily, her eyes darting through the crowd in jittery apprehension. But everywhere she looked were unfamiliar faces, and gleaming eyes, and sparkling sharp teeth (it's just a dream, it's just a dream) and the music was reaching deafening crescendos and the dancers were moving faster and wilder with every step—
Unwittingly, Henrietta backed up against the wall, and her hand brushed against something cold and hard. Whirling, she found that she'd hit a door that certainly wasn't there a moment ago. The escape she'd been wishing for. Without a second thought, Henrietta turned the knob and, for the second time that evening, stepped into darkness. With a soft click, the noise of the party was abruptly cut off, and she was left standing in a cool, peaceful room.
Which turned out to be in the middle of a barking forest.
She was starting to feel distinctly ridiculous. None of this was real, for God's sake, so there had been no reason to panic like that, and she stubbornly shook off the memory of those cold, cutting eyes. Changes in scenery occurred in her dreams all the time, so she shouldn't be so surprised. It was dark, but not frighteningly so, full of the hum and chatter of unseen animals, birds, and insects. Pools of bright, silvery moonlight filtered down through the canopies to ripple like water across the loam and hedge. It was actually a pretty nice place, just your average run-of-the-mill woodland scene. The only problem with the whole thing, was that when she looked back at the door, there wasn't one. So getting back, to say the least, was going to be a bit of a problem.
She was just trying to decide if she should start walking, when a voice startled her out of her thoughts.
"You look a little lost, my dear."
Henrietta choked, seized the closest thing within reach, and twisted around to menace whoever it was into submission.
She ended up threatening a swanky-looking gentleman—sitting cross-legged in midair four feet off the ground—with a thick wooden baseball bat. Where the bat had come from, she hadn't the foggiest idea, but that was the least of her troubles. Because the gentleman standing before her looked as if he'd been carved by Michelangelo himself. He wore a cocky grin, and his sleek black hair was brushed forward in a roguishly spiky fauxhawk. His blood-red eyes twinkled merrily at her from beneath a garishly large hat, adorned with several plush, scarlet feathers. However, every scrap of clothing, from his hat to his filibuster waistcoat to his curly-toed shoes...was all solid gold. Even his skin seemed to be aglitter, like a pirate that had gone mental with a can of metallic paint.
"Rumpelstiltskin, at your service," said the rogue in a voice that could melt butter, put his feet on the ground, and swept into an extravagant bow.
"O-oh," said Henrietta, too stunned to come up with something wittier. "Ah...pleased to meet you. I'm...I'm Little Red Riding Hood, I suppose."
"An honor," said Rumpelstiltskin with a quirking grin. "And may I ask, just what are you are planning to do with that bat?"
Henrietta blinked, thrown by the sudden question, and then realized what was still clutched in her hands. Sheepishly, she lowered her weapon and let it swing awkwardly at her side.
"Just admiring it," she said lamely, hoping he would ignore the fact that she'd been about to stove his head in. Like the other party-goers, he made her nervous and uneasy, but she suspected it was for entirely different reasons. The man had a face that could seduce angels from their perches, with his sharp nose and slashing brows and full mouth, and he tripped her heart in way she was not at all used to.
"It is a fine piece of sporting equipment, I must say," Rumpelstiltskin smiled, dazzling her. "You came with Master Howell, didn't you? Am I correct in assuming you are his contractor?"
"Um...yes," Henrietta replied hesitantly, unwilling to reveal much more than that, but unable to bring herself to lie to him. Somehow, those ruby-red eyes were guileless and friendly and seemed to say, It's alright. You can trust me.
But Henrietta had read enough horror stories to know that the worst things came in the prettiest packages, and she determined to regard this handsome gentleman with a healthy amount of skepticism.
"Are you now? I'm surprised he let you out," Rumpelstiltskin said, lifting a brow.
"Wait a minute, how do you know I'm with Howell? I'm not...I'm not still at the party, am I?" Henrietta stammered, her brows furrowed in thorough befuddlement.
"In a manner of speaking," Rumpelstiltskin replied. "Location is a, shall we say, fickle thing in our world. But I really would have thought Howell would keep a better eye on you. Of course, he never really cared for his things, but I didn't think he'd be this reckless."
He was fishing for something, she realized. But for what, she wasn't sure, so she decided to play along.
"Letting me had nothing to do with it," Henrietta said, and couldn't help but be a little boastful. He was terribly handsome, after all. "I'm the one that decided to come along."
"Did you now? You actually...escaped, all on your own?" Rumpelstiltskin said. He sounded much more interested now. "My, that is impressive."
"Why is that?" she asked.
"Well, usually you don't find contractors outside their own heads," Rumpelstiltskin explained, his scarlet eyes warming like embers as he stepped closer to her. "It's dangerous, you know. Most that wander into our territory...Well. Bad things tend to happen to them."
"Oh? What kinds of things?" Henrietta pressed, but she couldn't resist a lop-sided smile. Apparently this new nightmare wasn't aware that she was on to him. If he thought he could scare her, he had another thing coming.
"They never wake up again, for starters," Rumpelstiltskin answered with a shrug and a toothy grin that stretched from one pointed ear to the other. Henrietta leveled a look loaded with skepticism at the man, before she hefted her bat and made to swing at his head.
"Whoa, hold it! I won't do anything!" Rumpelstiltskin cried, holding out his hands.
"You don't scare me, you know, so don't even start," Henrietta growled warningly, and shook the bat in his face for good measure. "I know I'm dreaming, and I know you can't hurt me, so you can just back off."
"I have no intention of harming you!" Rumpelstiltskin protested.
"Then what do you want?" she demanded.
"I think I'm allowed to be curious about the strange girl wandering around in the woods," Rumpelstiltskin retorted a little indignantly. "In fact, most gentleman would be concerned for her safety, all alone in a world full of monsters. Most gentleman would wish to render help, if they could."
"So...you're saying you're concerned about me," Henrietta clarified, in a flat, somewhat disbelieving voice.
"Why else would I be here?" he said, as if this was entirely reasonable.
"You don't even know me," she thought it prudent to mention.
"Fiddlefaddle and rot," he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. "That is entirely beside the point, my dear. Now, do you want to get back to the party, or don't you?"
"Well, I suppose, but I don't see how...the door's gone," she explained haltingly, with a vague gesture towards the empty place where it had been.
"Well, then, it's obvious that we must find another door," he replied sensibly. Henrietta gave him an incredulous look, and wondered if perhaps his attic was a bit more cracked than she'd first thought.
"That is the daftest thing I've ever heard of," she said.
"Oh, it is not," he argued. "You came in through a door, didn't you? Then obviously we need a door to get you back out. It makes perfect sense, if you think about it."
"No," Henrietta said, shaking her head. "No, it doesn't."
"That is typically the nature of dreams," he replied sagely. "Now, I do believe there's a cottage around here somewhere. I'm sure if we start walking we'll come upon it eventually." At this, he offered his arm and a cocky smile. Henrietta let out a sigh, unable to think of another option, and gingerly took his proffered arm.
"...Alright. But I'm warning you, if you try anything I'll knock your blinkin' block off. Got it?" She held up her bat to demonstrate her point.
"Got it," Rumpelstiltskin nodded, his grin positively wolfish, and led her towards a hidden fox trail winding its meandering way through the trees. It was a well-worn and easily treaded path—going forward. But every time Henrietta chanced a look back, she found that the foliage seemed to have closed in behind them. She tried not to be too alarmed by this. However, they hadn't walked very far, when—
Startled, Henrietta looked up, lifting her bat instinctively. A pretty slip of a girl was sitting in the branch above their heads, peering down at the two with inquisitive eyes. She wore a simple frock of a dress, and her feet were bare, landing lightly as she dropped from her perch.
"And who might you be?" Rumpelstiltskin inquired pleasantly, though there was a tightness in his jaw and a hard glint in his scarlet eyes.
"Oh, I'm Cinderella tonight," the girl replied with a warm smile. "Of course I already know who you are, scoundrel."
"Of course you do," Rumpelstiltskin returned shortly.
"But who is this?"
"Little Red Riding Hood," Henrietta said in a friendlier tone, and even dipped into a small curtsy. Close up, she could see just how becoming the girl was, with her doe-brown eyes, and her soft chocolate hair gently curling about her shoulders. Henrietta had begun to believe there were only two types of people in this strange world: the frighteningly monstrous or the devastatingly beautiful, and she was unspeakably relieved to find someone as normal-looking as Cinderella was. No sharp teeth, no unnerving eyes, no claws. It made her feel slightly less alone.
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Riding Hood," Cinderella smiled. "Where are you off to?"
"Well, I suppose you could say we were looking for a door to take us out of here," Henrietta replied. "Rumpelstiltskin here said there's a house nearby. I don't suppose you would care to join us?"
"I'd love to," Cinderella grinned. "I'm guessing you're going to head towards Granny's?"
"Naturally," Rumpelstiltskin said. "It's the closest way out."
"Yes, I was just on the way there myself, when I heard you coming," Cinderella explained, and glanced up at the tree with a wry smile. "Better safe than sorry. But...you do know you're going the wrong way, right?"
"Oh, I knew it!" Henrietta cried, and raised her bat to the golden-clad gentleman. "I knew you were up to something, after I warned you, and everything. I guess I oughtn't be surprised. You're really too good-looking to be true, aren't you?"
"Now wait a minute, hold your hydrogen, girl!" Rumpelstiltskin cried, then had to duck as the bat whistled over his head. "Let's not blow this out of proportion! I just got a little lost, honest!"
"Sure you did," Henrietta laughed, and took another vicious swing at him. She hit a branch when he dodged, cracking it in half. "Hold still!"
"No!" Henrietta snapped. "You beasts have been jerking me around all night, and I'm getting sodding sick of it! Now get lost, or I'll blast your face clean off your shoulders!"
"With a baseball bat?" Rumpelstiltskin spluttered, then froze as Henrietta hefted a double-barreled shotgun and leveled it at his nose. "Oh," he said with a nervous chuckle, and slowly put his hands in the air. "I see what you mean."
"Now you're on the trolley," Henrietta smiled. "Start marching."
"You're really going to trust her over me? You just met her!"
"I just met you, too. And at least she doesn't look like a vampire," Henrietta retorted.
"What, that's a good thing?" Rumpelstiltskin demanded, but Henrietta pumped the action on her shotgun with a satisfying ka-tchnk, and he nodded weakly.
"Right, right. I'm going," he sighed and stepped back into the foliage. "...But don't say I didn't warn you."
"Believe me, I certainly won't. Keep walking," Henrietta said firmly, her gun trained unwaveringly on the spot right between his ruby eyes until the shadows had a grip on his clothes, and pulled him back into the woods, and ate him whole. She didn't immediately lower her weapon, but stood still for a moment, listening as the quiet void slowly filled back in with the calls of birds and the cacophony of cicadas.
"Well, that was exciting," Cinderella said, making Henrietta grin.
"You know the way back?"
"Oh, yes," Cinderella said, pointing to the ground where a trail of bread crumbs lead off the path. "Shall we, then?"
"We shall," Henrietta smiled, cast one lingering look at the spot where Rumpelstiltskin had disappeared, then linked her arm with the Princess's and the both of them stepped into the wood.
Henrietta didn't know how long they'd been walking, but time—like places, and for that matter, people—didn't seem to be a definite thing here. She didn't particularly mind, because Cinderella turned out to be an amicable and amusing companion, and for the first time in what felt like a very long while, Henrietta was enjoying herself.
"So, you actually wandered into this world like I did?" she asked as she helped Cinderella scramble over a fallen tree trunk.
"Yes, only I—" she stumbled into Henrietta's arms with a little squeak, "Only I couldn't ever find my way back," she finished. She didn't sound especially saddened by this, only matter-of-fact, like she knew this was the way things are and had already accepted them as such.
"How long have you been here?" Henrietta asked.
"It's hard to say. Time doesn't flow regularly here, as it does in the waking world," Cinderella explained. "But I know it's been years. I don't remember my life from before, my family, my friends, or even how I got here. Everyone that gets trapped in this place forgets eventually. I don't even remember what my name was."
"That's...that's terrible," Henrietta said quietly.
"Is it?" Cinderella asked in bemusement. "Yes, I suppose it is. You get used to it. I can't imagine living in the real world now. It sounds so frightfully dull."
"Yeah, you could say that," Henrietta laughed, though a squick of unease trickled down her spine. "Did you say there are others that have been trapped here?"
"Hm, yes. Coma patients, mostly," Cinderella replied. "They're usually the ones that lose their way first. Are you in a coma?"
"Not since the last time I checked," Henrietta said dryly.
"Well, that's good, you have a better chance of getting out then," Cinderella said. "Course, without your Id I doubt that's going to be very easy. Where is he, anyway?"
"Your Id," Cinderella repeated. "Oh, you know, your Inner Demon. The thing that controls your dreams, lives within your subconscious..."
Suddenly, something thunked into place inside Henrietta's head, and she stared at Cinderella in dawning comprehension.
"Are you...are you talking about familiars?" she demanded in a cracking, incredulous voice.
"Oh, don't say that!" Cinderella said in a harsh whisper, and glanced furtively around, as if making sure they weren't being watched. "They don't like it when you call them that."
"Then when you say contractor, you really mean..."
"What you might call a Maestro, yes," Cinderella muttered hurriedly, as if she was afraid of being overheard, and her nose wrinkled in acute distaste. "But don't say that word, either, if you want to keep all your parts."
The unease in Henrietta's gut abruptly congealed into a solid chunk of icy black fear.
"So the Under Thing..."
But the horrified whisper died in her throat with the realization that they were not alone.
Something awful stood in the dark just beyond the trees, and it was watching her with steely golden eyes, so hungry and heartless and hateful that her lungs nearly froze in her chest. The black-clad figure from earlier stepped into their path, his coat-tails billowing like the shadows he'd materialized from, and the gloom of the world seemed to drape his shoulders like a cloak. From what she could tell, he appeared human. He didn't look much older than she was, just a boy really, but there was such grim foreboding in his hard gaze that Henrietta found she'd raised her gun and took aim without even thinking about it.
This was no man, and if ever there was a nightmare in this world, she knew without a single doubt, that creature was it. The terror roiling in her gut, turning her blood to sludge and reaching up to slowly wrap frigid tendrils around her choking heart, was proof enough for her.
"Don't come any closer!" she called warningly. But the creature regarded her with flat, glacial eyes and began to step towards the two of them with even, deliberate strides. "I mean it!" Henrietta screamed. "I will shoot you!"
But the thing didn't stop, and didn't answer, and the shadows were closing in behind him...and suddenly Henrietta felt herself falling, despite the fact that both her feet were planted flat on the ground. But those cutting eyes were bottomless, and looking into them was like staring back through eons and centuries and year upon year of never-ending death and fear and broken desolation...
...everything was in ruins...
"For God's sake, run!" Cinderella shrieked, and seized Henrietta's arm to yank her off the path and into the woods. Tripping and panting and stunned beyond words, Henrietta could only let the Princess pull her father and farther through the loam, with hardly any idea of where they were going. As long as they were going away from that terrible thing, she didn't really care.
But then her heart nearly clawed its way up her throat when she heard the tell-tale sound of running footsteps behind them. She glanced over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of jagged white teeth and a sleek black form—not human—when the creature sprang and Henrietta dragged Cinderella screaming to the ground scant seconds before the thing's snapping jaws closed around her head. Something huge and black crashed into the foliage ten feet away, snarling deep in its throat. It twisted around slowly, and Henrietta was crucified with the sheer amount of fury and force in those piercing eyes.
"What is that thing?" she said in a strangled whisper, her muscles pulled so taut they might as well have been petrified. Cinderella's simple reply was quiet and ominous and full of dread.
But it was nothing like any wolf Henrietta had ever seen. The hulking nightmare was the size of a barking Clydesdale cart horse, and it towered over her by a good foot and a half. Its coat was not of fur, but of feathers, all black as coal and glinting like steel. Its teeth glistened in the dark, razor-sharp and wicked, and the snarl that issued from its throat was blood-curdling.
But that was not the worst thing.
The worst thing was that every strip of flesh, every gristly muscle, every scrap of cartilage in the wolf's face had been skinned from the bone. The white skull gleamed dully in the moonlight within a mane of bristling black feathers, and those golden eyes burned from their dark sockets, and Henrietta knew this was what Death must look like.
And it was coming for her with slow, even strides. But this was not like her nightmare with the Under Thing. She would not just stand there like a helpless little girl, or huddle like a spineless coward and await her end. She was Henrietta Howell, and this was just a barking stupid dream, and she was armed. So she lifted the shotgun, took aim, and fired.
The Wolf jerked back as one of its eyes was blown out the side of its head. The forest echoed with the retort of the gun, and grackles flew cawing from their perches, and the air was filled with menace. But the Wolf did not fall, and it did not stop, and the gaping wound in its face was just a hollow black hole. Thinking fast, and trying not to hyperventilate, Henrietta threw her gun down and shut her eyes tight, concentrating...
A heavy thunk caught her attention a second later, and when Henrietta looked, there stood the Cannon. When she reached out to touch it, the gun rose up on two mechanikal legs and took aim. The Wolf reared, and screamed, and then an explosion tore the sky apart. A yawning black chasm opened up in the Wolf's chest, and he was hurled back into the shadows.
Ears ringing, Henrietta grabbed Cinderella's arm and yanked her to her feet. They ran. And for a moment, Henrietta thought they might have gotten away. But then the world began to fill with fog, and the woods twisted with malevolence, and dog-like silhouettes whose muzzles were too long and too sharp were moving through the haze all around them. A mournful howl rent the air.
"Please," Henrietta panted, too panic-stricken to imagine what she was even asking for. "Please...!"
And then, quite without warning, they broke through the trees and stumbled out into a clearing, with a small gurgling brook, and a little cobbled path, and a quaint wooden cottage. Nearly crying in relief, the two girls scrambled up the steps, tore open the door, and bolted inside.
"Lock the door! Lock the door!" Cinderella cried, near hysterics, and unbidden, the image of a dozen different locks marching around the frame came to mind, and Henrietta jumped as they suddenly popped into existence with the rattling-bark of a Gatling gun.
"Well," said Cinderella. "That's going a little overboard, but I suppose that works."
Henrietta let out a weak, breathy chuckle, and sank to the floor where she sat trying to catch her breath. Only to scramble away a second later as a soul-splitting screech rent the silence, and something began to claw and scratch at the door, snarling to be let in. And then the windows began to rattle as things tested their latches, and there was a clatter from above as clawed paws skittered over the roof.
"They're going for the chimney!" Henrietta cried. "Fire! Start a fire!"
Cinderella scurried to find a match, and gave startled jump when the fireplace suddenly roared to life, and the unseen beast that had been crawling down through the smoke-stack let loose an ungodly cry and clawed its way back up.
She and Cinderella froze, and strained their ears for any signs of movement from outside, but it seemed that the Wolf had finally given up.
"Were do you suppose we are?" she asked once she'd got the wind back in her lungs.
"The Cottage of the Seven Dwarfs," said a sweet voice, but it came from behind, and it was not Cinderella's. Henrietta's back hit the door so fast she wasn't even aware of moving, a Colt .45 pistol appeared in her hand, and she had it aimed between the intruder's eyes faster than either of them could blink.
A young girl was seated at a cozy cherry-wood table, a mug of tea cupped in her delicate hands, and a look of utter surprise on her pretty face. Henrietta knew her name without even asking. It was one of her favorite fables, after all. Hair black as ebony, skin white as snow, lips red as blood...
Henrietta was standing before little Snow White—and she had almost blown her blitzing head off.
"Um...hi," she muttered sheepishly, and tried to hide the pistol behind her back. "Um, sorry, I'm just a bit jumpy, after...well, that."
"It's quite alright," Snow White assured her kindly, and smiled like warm apple cider as she rose from her chair to help Henrietta off the floor. "It's okay, I certainly won't hurt you. But, oh dear, you look such a mess! And Cinderella, too! What on earth happened? Here, come sit down and I'll make you girls some tea."
"Oh, you should have seen her, Snow!" Cinderella gushed as she settled into the tiny chair next to Henrietta. Obviously, these two were old friends. "First, she chased off that scoundrel Rumpelstiltskin with a baseball bat, and when the Wolf showed up—"
"The Wolf!" Snow White gasped, playing her part as enraptured audience to a T.
"Yes, but she took care of him," Cinderella assured her briskly. "She turned her bat into a shotgun, and when that didn't work she dreamed up a walking cannon! Have you ever heard of such a quick imagination?"
"Actually, I already did something like that once," Henrietta admitted, but her cheeks were staining, and she couldn't help a prideful grin.
"How long have you been here?" Snow White asked curiously as she bustled around the dwarfen kitchen, boiling water for their tea, and setting out a plate of sliced apples on the table while they waited.
"Just tonight," Henrietta replied. "But I'm starting to think it would be a good idea to wake up."
"Oh...well...the thing is, that's quite impossible," Snow White told her softly. "You see, you're not exactly where you're supposed to be, and I'm afraid you won't be able to awaken until you've returned to your own mind."
"What do you mean, 'my own mind'?" Henrietta asked carefully.
"You could think of it as being spirited away," said Cinderella. "This world is actually what the Id refer to as the Marketplace of Ideas. Anything you can imagine can be made a reality here. But it's located far beyond the boundaries of your own consciousness, what is commonly referred to as the Collective Subconscious. But the denizens here call it the Land of Id."
"So, basically, what you're telling me is that I'm some sort of ghost, and this is some kind of astral plane of existence outside my own head, and that if I don't find my way back home I could be stuck here forever," Henrietta summed up.
"To sum it up, yes," Cinderella chuckled.
"...What happens to my body, if I'm trapped here?" Henrietta queried hesitantly, and the butterflies in her stomach anxiously fluttered, as if they feared the answer.
"You'll end up sleeping your life away," Snow White said quietly. "And...eventually...you'll grow old and die."
"Is that what happened to you?" Henrietta asked gently, looking between the two Princesses. They glanced at one another, and Cinderella put a hand atop Snow White's, who nodded once, her ebony curls bouncing and her heart-shaped face tight and drawn.
"But that's the nice thing about this place," she said with a weak, trembling smile upon her blood red lips. "Even if you die in the waking world, your spirit remains, unchanging, forever and ever."
But there was a bleak undertone in her soft voice, and Henrietta got the impression that an everlasting eternity in this place was not the happily ever after Snow White had been hoping for. When she looked up again, Henrietta realized that her eyes were as black as her hair, and when they glistened with unshed tears they were like two tiny mirrors.
"But that's okay," Snow White said, taking a steadying breath and smiling with a little more vigor. "I was thinking of taking a vacation soon, anyway. Here, would you like an apple?"
Henrietta took a slice from the proffered plate and bit into it without thinking, her mind still preoccupied with everything that had been said, and she wondered if she dared to believe any of it. Because the thought that it could be anything more than a balled up dream was terrifying, that these two Princesses were once real people trapped in a fantasy, and that she might share the same fate. And then her mind was spinning with more than just questions, and the room was spinning with it, and Henrietta staggered out of her chair with the sudden realization of what she'd done and the Under Thing's Cockney drawl was echoing in her ears...
"Mind that yeh don't eat or drink nothin' while yer 'ere, though...Could 'ave some nasty consequences."
Everything had eyes. Yellow, lamp-light eyes that emerged upon the gnarled faces of seven stumpy-limbed dwarfs as they crawled from their nooks and crannies. Drool dribbled through their yellowed saw-edge teeth, and their scraggly beards were tangled with knots, and their skin sagged from their bones. A noose of rope was around each of their thick necks, like leashes on dogs. The closest toddled forward to clutch at the hem of Henrietta's skirt, where he gazed up at her with unblinking eyes, and snapped his bear-trap jaws.
Henrietta threw the little man off and stumbled backward and then the floor rushed up to hit her without so much as a warning. A burgeoning blackness was moving behind her eyes, but she could still make out the smiling faces of Snow White and Cinderella.
"Don't worry," said Snow White. "They won't hurt you unless I tell them to."
"What...?" Henrietta said in complete confusion, and grabbed her chair to try and climb back onto her feet, but her legs didn't seem to want tot listen anymore.
"Oh dear, it looks like I'll have to explain," Snow White sighed, and actually had the nerve to sound exasperated, and when Henrietta looked into her mirror-mirror eyes she saw that her reflection now was warped and twisted and ugly. "I just want you to know that it's nothing personal, Henrietta."
"...You know my name," Henrietta said, fighting to stay conscious.
"I do," Snow White replied. "You might say an...acquaintance of mine has a bit of a grudge against you. I just want to make sure she's happy, that's all."
And as Snow White spoke, Henrietta saw another figure emerge from the gloom—a girl with hair like sunshine, and lips that shamed the red red rose, and blue eyes as feral as a wolf's. Sleeping Beauty moved to sit at the table and offered Henrietta a simpering smile.
"Her?" Henrietta demanded in disbelief. "You poisoned me because she and the Under Thing got snippy with one another?"
"Oh, heaven's no, that would be ridiculous!" Snow White laughed, her voice like tinkling bells. "No, no, these two are merely my little pets. Like the dwarfs, they do whatever I tell them..." She smiled then, and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty smiled with her, like puppets on a string. "You see, I must admit that I lied, earlier. They might have ensnared themselves in this world, but I have been here since the beginning."
"Yes," Snow White purred. "I am Id, like your little Under Thing, like Valiant. And this—" she moved closer to Henrietta, so close that she could almost brush her lips in a kiss, and looked right down into her eyes. "This is much more personal."
"Who...are you, then?" Henrietta panted. Everything was starting to blur together, and tendrils of shadow were crawling across her vision like worms.
"Don't worry," Snow White smiled, guileless and kind and beautiful. "You'll find out soon enough."
And that's when everything went black.
EDIT: Changed Persephone to Sleeping Beauty, and Valiant is the Wicked Fairy and not the Queen of Hearts. It fit better into my ultimate plan, but will probably make more sense to me than it will you. Also, I ditched Valiant's southern accent—as a wonderful reader pointed out to me, it was a bit too much. And the mechanikal buggies have been changed to living insects, to contrast with Henrietta's clockwork world. Don't worry though—there will still be gigantic steampunk grasshoppers.
I'm also considering switching SB and Cinderella's roles later. When I wrote Snow White's lines about how Henrietta might end up sleeping forever, I couldn't help but think about having the two Princesses there that were most famous for, what else? Sleeping! Oh, the delicious irony! But I think it might confuse people more right now to edit it, so I'll wait. But it will happen. Oh yes, it will.
As always, any grammatical errors you find please feel free to nitpick at. This is roughly the first draft, and I seriously NEED A BETA. Any volunteers? But for now, I decided, the hell with it, I'll post it anyway because I hate editing my own stuff.
Aaaaand, this actually ran a little longer than I thought. I had originally planned to keep the dream contained within the first three chapters only, and I may go back and change that too someday. But for now, the adventure continues! And for those of you that are desperately confused, I will attempt to explain most of what's happening in the next chapter—this one just ran a little too long. Please send me any questions you may have. I'm trying to tackle some pretty complex ideas about dreams and the subconscious mind, and explain it as simply as possible, and while it may all make sense in my head, I realize it may not make sense to you.
I want to thank everyone that has reviewed so far, but especially griffinpixie for their phenomenal advice. And speaking of reviews, I really cannot believe the attention this thing has gotten—over 100 hits and 17 comments, and that's only for two chapters. I'm so excited! And I had a lot of fun writing this one—much more action going on. I have one more important character to introduce, but I think I've covered all of them.
One more thing. SPOILER...ish? I know most romances start off with the two love interests at one another's throats, but that isn't where I plan to go with Henrietta and Howell, and the reason I mention this is because one) I knew people would ask and two) someone already has. Sorry, guys, they're just fighting because, well...have you noticed that Howell is kind of an ass? He just likes to push people's buttons, Henrietta especially. I will get more into their relationship later, but basically they're pretty much like two siblings that just don't get along.
So, as always, please review and tell me what you think. I always love to hear how I'm doing, and I will most likely return the favor. Thank you and goodnight!