Act 1: Falling Through a Looking Glass I
The store was always difficult to clean. The walkways between the shelves were so narrow that Arisa could barely cross between them with the vacuum. Moreover, the contents of the shelves often jutted out. Arisa always prayed that she wouldn’t accidentally trip and break one of the more expensive goods. Many of the goods in the shop were fragile.
After sweeping the floor and sighing in relief that nothing had shattered, Arisa took a hand-held duster from the cabinet underneath the cash register and began to dust the large collection of items up for sale. She spent extra time dusting off her favorites —a wind-up clock with intricate glass sculptures of frozen people dancing in a fiesta that fit smugly within the palm of her hand; a complex telescope-like instrument made of brass that she had no idea how to use; a broach featuring white opal shaped into the delicate wings of a hummingbird; and her current favorite, a music box made of richly colored wood adorned with a single crescent moon made of seashells. An orgel, Sayo had called it. Unfortunately, the music box was missing its wind-up key, so Arisa was never able to listen to the song embedded within it. But she had no doubt that it played a beautiful and serene tune.
After she was done eradicating the dust from the main store, she returned upstairs to the kitchen. There was little point in wiping down the windows, as she wouldn’t be opening the store today. Sayo was still absent, as she had been for the past ten days. Suppressing a yawn, she grabbed a cereal bar and a glass of milk and plopped down on the stool next to the small kitchen table. She had never gotten around to fixing it, so the stool wobbled every time she shifted her weight.
What should I do today? Arisa thought as she ate her impromptu breakfast. At seventeen, she should have been at school. But Sayo had always homeschooled her, mostly because the two had always been travelling around the strangest corners of the world when Arisa was younger. In fact, they had only recently settled down in their humble little shop filled with antique goods. Sayo, however, had forever retained her wanderlust and frequently vanished without any means of contact for days at a time, only to return with some other strange good to sell and even stranger tales to tell. While Arisa loved Sayo’s stories, she wished her foster mother was home more often to help ensure their finances weren’t in the red.
But Sayo had never before left for more than a week.
Wondering whether to worry about Sayo’s absence or not, Arisa threw out the empty wrapper of her cereal bar and washed her glass. She needed Sayo to return soon —she couldn’t live off of cereal bars forever.
After some consideration, Arisa decided that today was a good day as any to clean out the attic. When bats had colonized the area two winters ago, Arisa had silently resolved herself to clean it out at least once a week. Sayo had simply laughed it off at the time, exclaiming that a home with bats was an exciting home indeed.
Fishing out the old broomstick and duster from the closet across the bathroom, Arisa opened the ceiling contraption that opened into the attic and pulled at the switch for the single lightbulb that lit up the space. She would never manage to lug the vacuum all the way up there on her own. She sneezed just as she set foot in the attic. No matter how often she cleaned, it seemed that it seemed to always somehow produce more dust to replace the quantity that had been lost. Wordlessly, she swept across the wooden floor, doing her best not to tip the balance of the piles of miscellaneous items that Sayo had stacked there.
In the center of the attic was a large object covered up in burlap cloth. It was a large mirror that Sayo had “found” earlier that month. She didn’t have any grand tale for it, so Arisa had almost forgotten its existence. Pulling off the heavy cloth, and after coughing until the dust settled down, Arisa examined the mirror for the first time.
There wasn’t anything obviously special about it. It was large and looked as if it would sell for a decent price, but that was it. Surely, it happened to catch Sayo’s eye one day, and she had likely bought it on a whim.
Pausing, Arisa stared at her reflection across the dusty surface of the mirror. Her brown eyes stared back. For a brief moment, Arisa entertained the thought that her reflection would move of its own accord —like the enchanted items from so many of Sayo’s stories. But, naturally, it didn’t. After all, why would it?
Breaking her fantasies, Arisa started to dust the mirror. She had to tip-toe just to reach its top. Being short was often unfortunate.
Suddenly, the lights turned off, and Arisa was left in darkness.
“Sayo?” she called out, thinking that it was yet another of her mother’s pranks. But Sayo wasn’t home. Perhaps she had returned? Then, Arisa remembered that she never heard the familiar ringing of the bell that rang whenever the door opened. Had the lightbulb burnt out?
With little other choice, Arisa turned around to make her way back to the entrance of the attic. Essentially blinded, she tripped on the burlap cover she had left on the floor. Cursing, Arisa realized that her legs had become tangled by the cloth. Unable to move, she fell backwards and braced herself before she crashed against the mirror.
But that impact never came.
Instead, she felt strangely cold, as if she had fallen backwards into water, and continued falling. Or, at least, she felt as if she was falling. Everything was black, so she had no way to tell. Yet she wasn’t frightened. It was like falling inside of a dream. No matter how fast or how far she fell, she felt that she would wake up unharmed afterwards.
Sayo often liked to talk about dreams.
From a corner of her mind, Arisa wondered if Sayo had ever dreamed of falling like this.
By the time Arisa realized she could see again, she found herself standing upright in the clearing of a forest she had never seen before. Immediately, she pulled her light grey jacket closer to her body, shivering involuntarily, but not because it was cold. There were no leaves on any of the trees. In fact, there was nothing growing at all. The earth was barren, save for a few dried up pieces of flora that appeared to have withered away long ago. Taking a step, Arisa heard a small crunch under her boot and looked down. She had stepped on the dried vestiges of strange, bluish leaves from a plant she didn’t recognize.
Arisa took several steps backwards until she was out of the patch of the dead, bluish leaves. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It was quiet enough that she could hear the brittle leaves crumbling after every step. The forest was quiet –too quiet. It set the hairs on the back of her neck on the edge. She had visited many forests and woods and other natural reserves with Sayo before. She was used to the sounds of nature that inevitably echoed around her in such places. But never before had she encountered a forest so silent. It was creepy, as if the forest itself rejected any and all unwelcome visitors.
“H-hello?” Arisa called out in a voice at least half an octave higher than her usual pitch. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved when nothing answered.
What would Sayo do? Arisa thought to herself. Sayo loved a good adventure. Surely, she would have ventured forth to see where she was and what was wrong with the forest. Or perhaps, she would have already known. As silly and as fickle as Sayo was, Arisa knew that Sayo possessed a vast pool of experience and wisdom.
But Sayo wasn’t here. And more importantly, Arisa wasn’t Sayo. The forest terrified her. It was too devoid of life and sound for her liking. Arisa wanted to curl up somewhere safe and pretend everything was a dream. Perhaps it was a dream. Nothing was making any sense. She wanted to cry and wait for Sayo to come and find her. Sayo would know how to handle the situation.
Arisa slapped herself with both hands, wincing as the resulting sting spread across her face. Sayo was the type of parent who, whenever Arisa had cried for her as a child, didn’t resolve the situation immediately. She would wait off to the side until Arisa stopped crying and allowed her to resolve her own problems herself. If Arisa didn’t know what to do, Sayo would gently guide her until she figured things out. If Arisa needed help, Sayo would not offer it until she was asked. It was only after the situation was over that Sayo would comfort her adopted child, hold Arisa in her arms, and tell her that she had done a great job.
Sayo would never come to her rescue.
“You can do this,” Arisa whispered to herself as she stubbornly reached out to grab a handful of the blueish leaves and set out into the thicket of trees. If she left a trail of leaves to follow, she reasoned, she would at least be able to return to the clearing if necessary.
Act 1: Falling Through a Looking Glass II
Arisa didn’t know how long she had been wandering in the forest. She had already returned once to the clearing to gather more blue leaves to further her trail. So far, they had been the only things with color that visibly stood out in the forest. Still, she had no way of knowing how much farther she had to go in order to leave. Her legs had begun to hurt by the time she regained her initial distance.
She hadn’t seen a single living creature in the forest yet. Though she was glad that she hadn’t encountered any sort of terrifying beast, it creeped her out. She wanted to leave the forest as soon as possible.
Soon after re-starting her trail of bluish leaves, Arisa heard something in the forest for the first time since she had started wandering about. Initially, she wanted to run away from it, so that whatever was making the noise wouldn’t find her. Then, she realized that it sounded human.
“Hello?” she called out. There was no response. Scanning the area, Arisa spotted something that looked like a little girl curled up into a ball. It sounded like the girl was crying.
Hesitantly, she approached the huddled figure. It definitely looked like a little girl. Arisa could faintly make out the outline of a shabby blue dress.
Perhaps it was due to the dim lighting of the forest. Although the trees had no leaves, their numerous branches made it difficult to even see the sky, and Arisa couldn’t even make out what time of the day it was. The huddled figure seemed to give off an eerie light.
“Shhh… ahhh… aughh…” the figure gasped between sobs.
Arisa stopped several feet away from the sobbing girl. Something rooted deeply in her instinct forbade her from taking another step closer.
“Um, are you okay?” Arisa asked.
And then she wished she hadn’t.
Still crying incoherently, the little girl slowly stood up. The first alarm bells rang throughout Arisa’s head when she realized that the girl didn’t appear to have feet. Her dress faded out and floated in the air as if seamlessly attached to the air surrounding it. The skin on her arms was a pale, unearthly color that reflected the color of her dress.
“Wahhh…” the figure moaned as it turned around. Arisa involuntarily took a step backwards after one glance at the girl’s face and stifled a scream. Her face was the same strange color of her arms, if not paler, and her whitish hair floated around her head as if she was submerged in water.
In stunning contrast to the rest of her appearance, the girl had horrifyingly black eyes. Or rather, she didn’t have eyes at all. Instead, in the place of her eyes were two black pits that overflowed like black and bloody tears across her cheeks, dripping into the crevasse of her the girl’s mouth that stretched too far up for Arisa’s comfort.
Run, Arisa commanded herself. She tried to force her feet to move, but only succeeded in falling on her bottom as her legs gave out.
“Shhh… Ahhh…” the specter moaned again as it stretched out a ghostly hand towards her. Its fingers were bent in the wrong directions.
“Sayo,” Arisa whimpered as the twisted appendage approached her. The air seemed to get colder as it crept closer and closer. Helplessly, Arisa shut her eyes.
A chilling voice cut through the air. “Enough.”
The coldness dissipated as if someone had pushed it away. Opening her eyes at the sound of the new voice, Arisa saw that someone with a majestic aura had stepped in front of her, shielding her from the ghost.
“Aughh…” the ghost cried out with both hands outstretched to the newcomer, as if in yearning.
“Leave,” the newcomer said. He sounded tired. “You don’t belong here.” As soon as the words left his mouth, a strong breeze swept from behind them and began to drag the ghostly girl away. She clawed the air, still trying to reach out for the man in front of her.
The newcomer muttered something under his breath just as the specter was finally cast away, still moaning and crying. Her screams died out with the wind. For a second, Arisa thought that the man had sounded almost forlorn.
But that notion quickly died away the moment he turned around and glared at her. His blackish-green hair looked rustled from the wind. It was short, save for two long braids falling from the right side of his face. Still in a daze, Arisa briefly entertained the thought that his hair looked like dried seaweed.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?” he asked as his sharp yellow-green eyes pierced through her.
“Huh? W-well, I…” Arisa stammered.
“Never mind,” the green haired man cut her off as he briskly walked over to her. “Come,” he ordered as he roughly grabbed her by the forearm and effortlessly pulled Arisa to her feet. By the time Arisa had managed to regain her balance, he had already walked past her. His robes billowed out behind him with every step.
“Hey,” Arisa called out as she ran to catch up to him. “What was that just now? What did you do? What’s going on? Where are we going?”
“You’re being too loud,” he replied curtly.
“Well, sorry,” Arisa muttered under her breath. She silently wished she had Sayo’s bold ability to drill others for answers. Unable to bring up the matter again, she blindly followed the green-haired man for several uncomfortably silent minutes.
“I chased away a wraith, and we’re going to Mirror Lake,” he finally replied. “Have you calmed down now?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah…” Arisa trailed off, a little embarrassed. She realized that her heartbeat had stopped racing.
“Where are we?” Arisa asked timidly, hoping he wouldn’t dismiss her this time. Thankfully, he didn’t.
“We’re almost at the edge of what used to be called Mystwood forest.”
“Look around you,” he replied with a sigh. “This forest is dead. It died along with its master a long time ago.” Arisa had noticed the state of the forest, but wordlessly took another glance at her surroundings. Dead. It was an accurate description of the place. Just looking at it made her feel depressed.
“That’s right, I never introduced myself!” Arisa remarked brightly, trying to ignore the oppressive impression the forest made on her. “I’m Arisa Kuze. Thanks for saving me earlier.”
He didn’t answer. Well that’s rude, Arisa thought to herself as she peered up at his face. Somewhere along the conversation, she had caught up to him, making it even more evident that he was at least a foot taller than her. The longer she stared, the more she thought that his skin glistened unnaturally under what little light the forest had to offer.
“What?” Arisa answered as she quickly looked away.
“My name. It’s Cain.” He was beginning to sound annoyed again.
“Oh, um, it’s nice to meet you.” Yet again, Cain replied with silence. Squirming internally from the awkwardness that prevailed, Arisa allowed herself to fall back behind him. Once again, she found herself staring at his figure.
His hair really looked like the color of seaweed, especially against the dark blue coat he wore over his even darker robes. It was only then that she noticed what seemed to be his ears sticking out from his hair. They were strangely elongated, reminding Arisa of the elves from the storybooks back at home. But Cain’s ears were even stranger –they feathered out at the ends, like the fins of the seahorses she had seen at the aquarium with Sayo once.
“What is it now?” Cain asked, exasperated. Arisa jumped a little as she realized that he knew she had been staring again.
“Are you human?” she blurted in a panic before she could stop herself.
To her surprise, Cain didn’t seem the least bit offended. Instead, he rolled his eyes. “Obviously not. Didn’t the ears and the scales give it away?”
“Oh…” Arisa remarked, unsure of what else to say.
“I’m a dragon,” Cain explained.
“I thought dragons were bigger,” Arisa argued. And more… draconic, she added in her head.
“I am. I’m just in a human form right now. It’s easier to move around.”
He did have a point, Arisa reasoned. Navigating a forest would probably prove difficult in a huge, hulking body. Arisa waited in vain to see if Cain would provide a more expansive explanation. Resigning herself to the silence that settled between them yet again, Arisa continued to follow along as Cain led them out of the forest.
Act I: Falling Through a Looking Glass III
The forest ended abruptly, drawing a distinct boundary between death, which dominated the forest, and the rest of the world. Grasses flourished a few feet away from the tree line, walling in the forest and containing whatever disaster had struck it within. Arisa wanted to ask Cain about the desolate condition of Mystwood forest, but something in the atmosphere had prevented her from asking. The air had been tense and heavy when they left the forest, and something about his face told Arisa that Cain would not answer her.
Traveling in silence had given Arisa plenty of time to study her companion. He looked surprisingly young –ten years older than her at most. Yet, he somehow felt older, grander. The way he carried himself felt proud, but at the same time, tired. It reminded her of how Sayo sometimes looked when she didn’t know Arisa was watching. Arisa had always wanted to ask Sayo what she was thinking when she was alone, but had never really gotten the chance to receive a proper answer. Only once had Arisa approached her mother when she wasn’t acting as the whimsical character she usually was. Sayo had been drinking under the stars while they were camping. When Arisa had asked what was wrong, her mother had simply smiled gently and drew the young girl close.
Before long, Arisa and Cain approached a large tower standing isolated in the middle of a circular lake. The tower was a creamy off-white color that contrasted sharply with the dark vines that crawled down from the sparse window slits that decorated it. The structure rose straight out of the lake without any sign of bedrock or foundation. The top of the tower was shaped like a lotus flower and moderate streams of water flowed down from in between its petals.
“Hey, what is that?” Arisa asked. It was the first time she had spoken in a couple of hours.
“Our destination, the Ivory Tower,” Cain answered without slowing down his pace, much to Arisa’s dismay. She had stopped feeling anything in her legs a while back. Swallowing a sigh, Arisa willed herself to keep following the dragon.
Arisa couldn’t help but gasp when they reached the lake. The water reflected the sky so clearly that Arisa felt as though she could have pretended she was flying if she decided to go swimming. Sayo definitely would have jumped right into the water without bothering to remove her clothes.
“And just what exactly are you doing?”
Arisa frowned as Cain called out to her while she was enjoying her view of the water. “I thought this lake was our destination,” she replied ruefully.
“We’re going to the Tower,” Cain said offhandedly.
Arisa stared at him blankly. “How are we supposed to get there?” she asked. The Tower rose straight out of the water. There was no path leading there. While it hadn’t seemed too far in the water from a distance, up close, Arisa realized that the distance between the shoreline and the Tower was farther than she had expected. Did Cain expect her to swim there with him?
“We walk,” Cain answered blankly.
“The water.” Cain briskly turned away from Arisa and, as he had explained, walked straight onto the water.
“Umm,” Arisa muttered as she tiptoed the shoreline and desperately tried to figure out the tricks behind Cain’s feat.
“It’s enchanted so that only demons can’t cross it. Hurry up,” Cain called as he turned his head back, “or do I need to carry you?” A wicked grin that didn’t reach his eyes spread across the dragon’s face.
Clenching her teeth, Arisa abandoned caution and boldly took a step into the shallow reaches of the lake. After all, the worst that could happen was that she ended up with wet boots (and socks, which were nasty). To her pleasant surprise, her feet did not sink beneath the waterline. Curious, she raised each foot in place, one at a time, and lowered it back on the surface of the lake before following the dragon’s footsteps. Neither she nor Cain created any ripples.
Arisa wasn’t as surprised as Cain walked straight through one of the larger waterfalls that streamed down from the tower’s floral top. Still, she couldn’t help but hold her breath and close her eyes as she passed through. The water felt cold, but not too cold, and as she had expected after watching Cain, was not wet.
The inside of the Tower was damp and dark. Barring the veins of ivy that had likely decorated the walls for centuries, the only thing inside was a simple spiraling staircase made of the same whitish stone that the walls were made out of. There wasn’t even a handrail. From the cracks in the walls, Arisa glimpsed countless gears of various sizes rotating silently. Perhaps it was the mechanism behind the water that fell from the petals at the top of the tower.
Arisa’s heart dropped as she gazed up at the stairs that stretched upwards until they blended into the darkness. “Are we really going to climb this?” Arisa asked. She could barely feel her legs as it was.
“Not anytime soon,” Cain replied. “At your pace, we wouldn’t make it to the top until at least tomorrow.”
Well, excuse me, Arisa thought indignantly at his quip. Before she could form the words to respond, Cain picked her up by the waist and hoisted her over one shoulder like a sack of rice. “Hey, put me down!” Arisa cried out in protest.
“Quit squirming and shut your mouth. You’ll bite your tongue,” Cain warned. The moment Arisa stopped kicking in confusion, Cain rocketed upwards, causing Arisa to clutch at his robes in panic. She could barely process what was happening even as the wind whipped at her back and the floor she had just been uprooted from disappeared at an alarming rate. She wanted to cry every time Cain launched again from the stairway that continued to circle the Tower’s walls.
“It’s over. You can let go now.”
Arisa cracked open her eyes to find, to her great relief, that the world was no longer moving. She wanted to throw up. “What the hell was that about?” She asked as her eyes began to burn after Cain had set her down.
“Would you rather we had walked up here instead?” Cain asked back.
Unable to retort, Arisa turned around and stormed past a large set of double doors with intricate handles —the only other exit from the small room the stairs had led to. She stopped dead in her tracks after only a few steps into the next room.
To say that the room was large was an understatement. It was likely almost the entirety of the floral portion of the Ivory Tower that Arisa had seen from the outside. The floor was covered with black and white tiles checkering evenly throughout. A luscious red carpet embroidered with black vines cut across the floor in a straight line from the door that Arisa had just entered from. Impressively cut white columns and red drapes lined the circumference of the room. The carpet led to a raised stage covered by the same red material. On the stage was a single chair made of white stone. The chair, while tall in stature, was remarkably simple and didn’t even possess armrests. Behind the chair was a simple, unadorned white door.
What stopped Arisa were the inhabitants of the chamber. They were covered from head to foot in bizarre costumes. They looked like the costumes from an old, theatrical play, complete with feathered hats, beak-like masks, and even, Arisa spotted, a top hat dressed with fruit.
But it was their faces that had creeped her out the most. Their faces where stark white, and were colored only by their black lips and the strange markings that outlined their eyes and traveled down to form delicate patterns on their faces. Their eyes were simply white, lacking the presence of irises. Arisa could not tell if they were elaborate mannequins or people wearing masks that attached seamlessly to their skin. They slowly walked towards her from their respective positions, making no noise and staring straight at her with their empty eyes.
Arisa took a step backwards into Cain, who had followed her into the chamber. “Don’t be scared,” he assured her. “They’re the Empress’s servants. They won’t do anything to you as long as I’m here.” After placing a hand on Arisa’s shoulder, the dragon stepped forward and pushed her behind him, hiding the strange servants from her view.
Cain stood his ground against the approaching servants until a woman’s voice rang throughout the chamber.
“Let them pass. They are my guests.”
Immediately, the servants ceased their slow advance and re-arranged themselves into two even lines across the carpet, bowing their heads in respect as their mistress passed through. ‘The Empress!’ ‘It’s the Empress!’ they whispered. Cain stepped aside and stood by the Empress’s side.
“I have been waiting for you,” the Empress continued. “I am glad to at long last make your acquaintance. I am Coppelia, the Empress of Mystearica. Welcome to my Kingdom, Alice.”
Act I: Falling Through a Looking Glass IV
The Empress’s dress was rather underwhelming in comparison to explosion of color found on her servants. She wore a simple white dress with a rich emerald lace bordering the top, continuing across and resting loosely upon her slender shoulders. While her skirt was short and simple in the front, it trailed longer behind her in a long, flowing train. Her fair skin was unblemished and looked like the consistency of cream. Inevitably, Arisa’s gaze was drawn to the Empress’s bare arms and legs, or rather, to the Empress’s left arm and leg. They were held together by perfectly-shaped ball joints that moved so smoothly that they could have been made of glass, or porcelain.
“I am sure you must have questions,” The Empress continued. “But first, will you not come in and sit down? There is little point in conversing here, Alice.” Without waiting for a response, the Empress spun around and began walking back the way she came, sending her long dress and black hair flowing after her. Unlike Sayo’s whose long black hair was always straight and somehow vivid with the touch of life, the Empress’s looked like a loose mass of thread. On top of her head was a simple yet elegant silver-gold circlet with crystals falling from the sides that twinkled as she moved.
Wordlessly, Arisa followed the Empress past the stage and through the white door. It opened automatically as the Empress approached and closed likewise behind Cain.
“Why are you calling me Alice?” Arisa asked as she glanced around the room. The furnishing was sparse and Arisa honestly thought most of it would have fit in well in her shop back home.
“Because that’s what you are,” Cain responded as the Empress sat down in one of the two chairs next to a small coffee table.
“An 「Alice」 is an 「Outsider」,” the Empress continued as she motioned for Arisa to sit across from her. “One who has yet to become entangled within the strings of the world. One that is yet unknown to it.”
“You’re leaving out the best part,” Cain remarked as Arisa sat down.
Pursing her lips, the Empress ignored the dragon and beckoned into the air with her right hand. “Would you care for a drink, Alice? I am certain you must be hungry,” she continued. The door opened and one of the Empress’s servants entered soundlessly, carrying a round tray with a plain white bottle and two flat cups. Placing the tray on the table, the servant poured a rich golden liquid from the bottle into both cups. It smelled sweet.
The Empress picked up one of the cups and swiftly brought it to her lips, draining its contents, and smiled politely as she put it back down. Feeling it would be rude not to accept the drink, Arisa carefully lifted the cup with both hands.
Cain walked over and plucked the cup out of her hands before it met her lips. “Are you trying to kill her?” he asked blankly. “Soma is toxic to people who don’t have a tolerance to magic.”
The Empress widened her eyes and brought up a hand to her lips. “Forgive me, I had forgotten,” she exclaimed as the light reflected strangely off of her left eye. Beckoning to the servant, she added, “I will have it diluted at once.” The servant collected the bottle and cups and retreated from the room.
“Allow me to be blunt,” the Empress continued, collecting herself and sitting at her full height. “Alice, I would ask for your aid.”
“Why me?” Arisa asked.
“The Taint is upon this world again. Its corruption ruins everything it touches. Demons are manifesting in unprecedented numbers. The land itself is dying.” The Empress closed her eyes before continuing, “My sister, Morrigan, chose this as an opportunity to take the throne from me.”
“So you want it back?” Sayo, Arisa thought, would have gladly jumped at this great chance to kill time. But Arisa wasn’t Sayo.
“If Morrigan was capable of guiding this world to prosperity, I would have given her the burden gladly,” the Empress replied, looking again at Arisa. “But she has joined hands with the demons, and as the Empress of this world, I cannot condone that. Nothing good can come from a pact with the demons, not ever. The only thing that demons bring forth is suffering.
“I would ask you to help me halt the Taint,” the Empress asked again, looking Arisa in the eyes. “Morrigan used the Taint as a cover to ambush and seal away my forces. I myself have been chased into the confines of this Tower, where Morrigan’s demonic contracts cannot reach. I lack the pieces to play, and my hands are tied.”
“What of the Vampires? Don’t they usually purify the Taint before it gets this bad?” Cain asked.
“The Colorless Ones have been silent since the previous plague of Taint five centuries ago,” the Empress sighed.
“So maybe they’re a little late this time,” Cain suggested.
“That is impossible!” The Empress slammed down the table with her left hand, causing a sharp clack to reverberate throughout the room. “The Colorless King was not one to shirk his duties. He has faithfully adhered to them since even before the Great Schism. There is no reason for him to quit his duties now, but that he is unable to.”
“Impossible?” Cain asked. “You think something happened to the Vampires? You do remember what they are, right?”
“You were asleep during the previous Taint, Cain, and you woke up only recently. You know not of how dreadfully far it spread, nor do you know of what its repercussions were.” The door opened again and a different servant entered with another tray and proceeded to pour two more cups of Soma in front of Arisa and the Empress. As the Empress had promised, the liquid did not glow as strongly as the previous bottle of it had. Gently, the Empress gestured at Arisa to try the drink.
“Um,” Arisa began as she picked up the cup. “I really don’t follow what’s going on, and I still don’t understand what you want from me.” She took a small sip. It tasted like milk tea, but was somehow richer, fuller than what milk tea had tasted like in her memories.
“All Alices, as a rule, are granted one wish. Alices are not acknowledged by this world, and thus, their wish is not bound to its rules. Though, of course, once that wish is realized, the world will recognize them, and the Alice will be an Alice no longer,” the Empress explained. “I would like you to use this wish to halt the Taint.”
“Would you send me home once I did?” Arisa asked after another sip. Soma, she found, was surprisingly filling.
The Empress failed to answer.
“Several Alices have fallen into Mystearica,” Cain replied instead, “but there is no known case of the opposite effect.”
Arisa avoided looking at either of her companions as she finished the liquid in her flat cup. The new servant stepped up to refill and immediately backed away. Swirling the liquid around, she asked, “Could I use my wish to return home?”
“Of course you can,” Cain said flatly, as if stating the obvious. “But don’t expect us to know how. We’re not Alices —we can’t teach you how to make that wish. Although I doubt Her Majesty would tell you even if she did.”
Arisa drank more Soma as an uncomfortable silence permeated the room. She honestly just wanted to go home. Sayo could be home at any time. Arisa wondered if Soma was alcoholic as a warm fuzz began to cloud her thoughts.
“May I propose a truce, then?” the Empress began as Arisa felt her eyelids grow heavy. “Will you not consider aiding me, at least until you figure out how to return to your world, Alice? If you wish to return, then it is not my place to stop you. Yet, if you cannot find your way back, would it not be better to stay?” Arisa thought she saw strange strings protruding like spider’s silk from the Empress’s fingertips. She rubbed her eyes until they went away.
“Will you not consider it?” the Empress asked again, smiling.
“Hmm?” Arisa muttered, trying to keep her eyes open as the day’s physical and mental fatigue weighed them down. “Sure, I guess.”
“You are kind,” the Empress beamed. “Thank you.” The Empress continued talking, but Arisa could not make out any of her words any longer as her fatigue won out.
Intermission: The Empress’s Pawn
“So this is it? This was your great plan? To get a child drunk on Soma and have her buy some time?” Cain spat out as he carried the sleeping girl over to the bed. The faint strings of the Empress moved the bed’s overbearing canopy out of his way and pulled the covers back, covering the girl again once Cain had laid her down. “Is this really the best you can do?” he continued.
“It’s over,” the Empress declared sadly as she continued drinking the diluted Soma that Arisa had failed to finish. “You know my power. I have seen through the strings of the world many times, and they have all lead to the same fate: demise. The Taint cannot be cleansed. Not this time.”
“That’s why you needed an Alice. You needed someone who wouldn’t factor into your predictions.”
“I had intended to struggle until the very end, but then everything was taken from me.” The Empress stretched out her cup of Soma into the air, as if she were saluting the something only she could see. “Morrigan, my Black King, has revolted against me. My White King was sealed away. My Crimson King is traveling the world to find a way to break that seal, but she will not make it in time. My Azure King is too busy with his own political struggles. The other Thrones are empty, and the Colorless King is missing. And thus, my options were taken away, one by one.”
The dragon stared down at his mistress as she brought the cup back down to her lips. “So give the order,” he told her.
“I know Morrigan,” the Empress replied mournfully. “If I do, she will respond with a full-scale war.”
“Wake up!” Cain demanded. “It’s been a long time since what was rightfully yours was wrongfully taken from you. The blood shed by your subjects is calling for revenge.”
“Do you think I do not know?” The Empress stood up from her seat and glared at the dragon. “Do you think that I, with my power, have not seen and heard their cries?” Hundreds of metallic strings erupted from the Empress’s left hand’s fingertips and raced towards the dragon’s face. He raised a single arm in front of himself, allowing the wires to bite into his skin and draw blood. “Do you think I have not tried considering every, and any, other alternative?” the Empress demanded as tears threatened to fall from her right eye.
“When you deny the clamor of your people, you play the role that your sister wants you to take,” Cain continued calmly and walked toward the Empress, even as blood trailed down the wires gouging his arm. “The role of an outdated queen. A weak and cowardly one.”
A loud smack echoed throughout the room.
“Good! That’s much better,” Cain smirked as he spat out blood on the floor from where he had cut the inside of his mouth against his teeth when the Empress had hit him. “It would really have hurt my pride to have become the pawn of an incompetent queen, your Majesty.” The Empress drew back the strings around his arms and silently watched as the wounds healed immediately. “If you want things to change, then you have to wish it will all your heart.” Cain used his now-uninjured hand to wipe off the excess blood off his face. “Become the sovereign this world was so proud of once again, Coppelia, the 「Doll of Dreams」.”
“As you say, I am the 「Doll of Dreams」. The dreams I see may never be attained, but,” the Empress brought up her hand and inspected it closely, as if she had never studied it before. Its smooth ball joints shined in the light, just like porcelain.
Cain knelt down before the Empress and placed a hand over the emblem that had been burned into his chest. “Just one word,” he said, “just one word from you, and your wish shall become mine.”
“Enough!” the Empress snapped as she threw down her hand. “I know perfectly well that the choice of causing the downfall of my kingdom no longer belongs to me, and that it has not belonged to me for quite some time! So be it! If Morrigan wants a war, she will have it!” The Empress pointed a slender figure at the prostrating dragon as his lips began to curve upwards. “Cain, this is an order. You will be my sword, and you will cut down the path before me. May it be filled with the blood and the agony of my enemies! This is what you wanted, is it not?”
The dragon lifted his head. Something akin to malice twisted his face into a cruel sneer as the temperature of the room dropped significantly. Still sound asleep, Arisa squirmed uncomfortably underneath the blankets.
“Your wish is my command, my Majesty,” the dragon replied.
Act 1: Falling Through a Looking Glass V
Arisa woke up in an unfamiliar bed that she had no recollection of getting into. The bed was hard and stiff, and its rigid canopy sealed her inside of its space. She felt as if she had spent a night in a museum bed —one that was not meant for people to sleep in.
Arisa moved the covers and canopy out of her way and crawled out of the bed. She was greeted by the Empress, who was sitting by the windowsill, staring out at the sky.
“Good morning, Alice,” the Empress turned her head as Arisa stepped out of the bed. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, I did. Thank you,” Arisa replied. Out of habit, she checked her ponytail to make sure that the ribbon Sayo had given her many years ago was still securely tied around her hair. She scanned around her room.
Noticing Arisa’s subtle movements, the Empress smiled and said, “I sent Cain out on a small errand. He should be back soon.”
Unsure of what to do, Arisa hesitantly sat down on the same chair she had used the day before. The Empress had returned to gazing out the window and had turned away from Arisa again.
Someone knocked on the door as Arisa sat fidgeting. Without waiting for an answer, Cain boldly opened the door and walked in.
“Did you prepare everything you need?” the Empress asked.
“Yeah, it wasn’t much to begin with,” Cain replied. “I’ve prepared horses too.”
“Horses?” Arisa asked.
“Yes,” the Empress smiled. “I need Cain to go northwest to the Weiss Mountains. Naturally, you’ll be going with him, Alice.”
“I am?” Arisa asked with her eyes open wide. Evidently, she would have no say in the matter.
“Of course,” the Empress answered. “After all, there’s not much for you to do here in the Tower. Unlike myself, you aren’t bound here; there’s no reason for you to have to stay.”
“Bound?” Arisa asked.
The Empress laughed softly. “Indeed. The circumstances at hand have forced me to lock myself in here. Morrigan and her demons would have my head the moment I step out of the enchantments of Mirror Lake. And besides,” she continued, “you promised to aid me for the time being. You gave me your word, did you not?”
Arisa frowned as she tried to remember when exactly she had agreed to help the Empress. In all honestly, she did not remember much of what they had discussed last night.
“You still haven’t told us why you want us to go to the Weiss Mountains yet,” Cain said, somewhat annoyed.
“I want you to meet Gwendolyn, the White King,” the Empress declared. “She has something I need you to retrieve from her. Something that I am glad that I entrusted to her before it was too late.”
“I don’t suppose we need to know what this something is, do we?” Cain snorted. He clicked his tongue in obvious annoyance when the Empress did not answer. “Fine,” he said after a short pause. Swiftly turning his back to his ruler, he called to Arisa, “we’re leaving”.
Giving one last hesitant glance in the Empress’s direction, Arisa hurried out towards the door that was about to close behind Cain. The Empress looked straight ahead at Cain’s back, and Arisa was not able to discern any visible emotion from the Empress’s visage.
“Come,” Cain said as he help out a hand to Arisa.
Arisa stared at it and then proceeded to scrutinize Cain’s face before finally giving in and saying, “We’re going to jump down, aren’t we?” She grimaced as she clutched her arms to her stomach and pointedly took a step away from him.
“Technically, I’ll be the one jumping,” Cain corrected her. “Unless you’d prefer to walk.”
Arisa immediately began to weigh the benefits and costs of each of her options. At the moment, taking the time to walk down seemed much, much more appealing to her.
“If you close your eyes, you won’t even know that you’re falling. I promise.” Cain said while rolling his eyes.
Carefully, Arisa placed her hand in his, and in that moment, Cain drew her in and picked her up with apparent ease. Securely in his stone-like arms, Arisa clutched at his robes, remembering the terror she had felt during their journey up. “You really promise?” Arisa asked.
“You talk too much,” Cain responded. “Close your eyes.”
Arisa shut her eyes at once and flattened her face against Cain’s robes as much as she could. For a moment, she felt as if she was floating. She had expected to feel butterflies in her stomach from the sudden drop in altitude, but she felt nothing. As Cain had promised, if it hadn’t been for her hair trailing above her and the weightless sensation of floating, she would not have known that Cain had jumped off the tower with her in his arms. It was not as unpleasant as the trip upwards had been.
“It’s over,” Cain said.
Arisa carefully opened her eyes and let go of Cain’s robes. After confirming that they were safely on the ground, she moved to slide out of his hold. Gently, Cain lowered her to the ground.
There were two horses waiting on the grassy shores of Mirror Lake, casually drinking from the water. In a cluster near the horses was a small pile bags and traveling gear.
“Do you know how to ride a horse?” Cain asked as he briskly walked across the water.
“Not really,” Arisa replied as she followed him across, this time without hesitation. She had ridden a few times with Sayo before, on their travels across the world. “I can stay on one without falling off.” Admittedly, that was all she knew how to do.
“That’s fine,” Cain said. Once he reached the shore, he began to pack the majority of the luggage on one horse. Finally, he strapped and fastened a saddle on the other. “Get on,” he told Arisa.
“I don’t mind walking,” Arisa said.
“It’ll be a long while before we reach Orsus. You’ll tire out.” Cain responded.
“Orsus? I thought we were going to the Weiss Mountains.”
“We’re going to Orsus first to gather some materials and information. Get on,” Cain repeated.
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine. I’m not as fragile as you humans are.”
Realizing that Cain would not take ‘no’ for an answer, Arisa climbed on the saddled horse with a bit of difficulty. It took a bit of squirming around before she found a comfortable spot on the saddle. Once she was ready, Cain led the horses away from Mirror Lake and the Ivory Tower.
Arisa suppressed a groan as she tried to stretch out her aching muscles. In all honesty, Arisa wished that she had walked instead of riding the horse. True to his word, Cain had stopped them only twice a day to eat and spent the rest of the day travelling. Arisa had lost track of how far they had travelled by the end of the first day. Although the horse ride had been smoother than she had expected, as Cain led it on tirelessly and effortlessly across the paths, her legs, bottom, and back hurt no matter what she did to stretch them out. A small sigh escaped her lips as she realized that sleeping outside again would only serve to make her current state of being even worse. At least she knew that she would black out as soon as she was cuddled up in the furry blanket that Cain had packed from the Tower.
The trip would have been better if Cain had made for a better companion. At first, Arisa entertained herself by watching the scenery. Everything was new to her, so she had thought that she might as well enjoy it. But that only entertained her for a couple of hours. Their surroundings had hardly changed during their path. She had tried talking to Cain too, but he responded only with abrupt answers, if he replied at all. Arisa had all but given up trying to force more small talk out of the dragon.
She stared at him as, once again, Cain continued to take care of the horses as she prepared herself for sleep. Arisa had yet to see him sleep during their few days together. In fact, she wondered if he even slept at all.
“Sleep,” Cain told her as he groomed one of the horses. “We’ll be waking up early again tomorrow.”
I know, Arisa complained in her head. “Good night, Cain. You should hurry and sleep too.”
As usual, he didn’t reply.
Act 1: Falling Through a Looking Glass VI
“Hey, wake up.”
Arisa groggily opened her eyes. “It’s still dark out,” she complained, still half asleep. Still, she sat up and squinted as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
“Hurry up and pack your things. We’re getting out of here.”
Arisa stood up to find that Cain had already readied the horses. He stood with his back towards her, glaring at something she couldn’t see. “Is something wrong?” Arisa asked, a little more awake now, as she rolled up the blanket that she had been sleeping in.
“We’re almost surrounded,” Cain replied curtly. “Get on the horse,” he said as he grabbed the blanket out her hands and quickly tied it to the horse carrying their sparse belongings.
As soon as Arisa had managed to climb onto the horse Cain urged the horses to rush forward in a full gallop after him. She wrapped her arms tightly against the horse’s neck to keep herself from falling off. It no longer surprised Arisa that Cain ran ahead of the animals with apparent ease.
Without warning, the horses whined and came to a sudden stop, lurching Arisa into the air as she was thrown off. Cain grabbed her before she could hit the ground and dropped her on the ground. Dizzy and aching, Arisa steadied herself back onto her feet and looked around.
Before her were countless creatures that she instinctively wanted to shy away from. They were roughly a meter tall with childlike proportions, though they were hunched over and likely to be taller. Their skin was black and visibly grimy, even in the dark, and their heads were bald. Instead of hair, they had two long, flappy ears at the side of their heads and one small horn protruding from their foreheads. They had large gaping mouths with mismatched fangs and eyes without pupils. From their limbs protruded severely deformed hands and feet, hunched into claws, with two to three inch nails growing out from each digit.
Arisa brought up a hand to her mouth and involuntarily took a step back. In the darkness, she couldn’t see how many there were.
“Imps —low-leveled demons,” Cain spat out. His distaste for the demons was the strongest emotion that Arisa had seen him wear. “I knew they were following us ever since we left the Tower, but I didn’t think there’d be so many of them.” Cain turned his head to look around at the flock of demons surrounding them. His face was twisted into a terrifying smile. “Well, they’re all small fry, but if it’s a fight they want…” Before Arisa could begin to assess the situation on her own, Cain took her by the arm with one hand and threw her behind him. In his other arm, Arisa saw that he had managed to catch an imp by the head. It squirmed and squealed as a blackish liquid oozed from where Cain’s fingertips dug into its flesh. “You foul, disgusting miscreation,” Cain continued as he lifted the creature upwards. He sounded disgusted, but the smile was still etched on his face and a dangerous light glinted from his eyes. “Die,” he said as he crushed its skull. The lifeless imp crumbled to the ground and melted into blackish goo.
Arisa trembled as she sat on the ground. The smell arising from the melted goo made her want to retch. Had she not had been trembling, she probably would have.
“So? Who’s next?” Cain asked as he stared down at the demons. A heartbeat later, he charged forward into a group of imps and tossed them violently into the air with a single swing of his arm. The next group was thrown up before the first fell down and exploded into a mass of black goo on the ground. Moments later, the crowd of imps began to jump at the wildly smiling dragon as he danced at the center of the swarm. Dozens of imps died and melted away with each movement he made.
Ara-mitama. Cain reminded Arisa of the raging deities of Sayo’s stories.
Still frozen on the spot, Arisa had not realized that Cain had steadily been moving away from her as he fought. She could only watch, mesmerized, as Cain danced before her, raining down death upon the demons.
“Hey!” Cain called out.
A small shriek from her right brought her out of her reverie as several imps jumped out at her, realizing that she was the easier target. Unable to bring herself to move, Arisa watched, dumbfounded as they grew bigger in her sight.
Before they could reach her, a giant sword swung down and cleaved the imps in half. “Are you alright?” asked the young man who wielded it. He was either in his late teens or early twenties. His messy black hair that reached down the back of his neck had tints of red in the moonlight and his eyes were the color of blood. Arisa nodded. “Thank goodness I made it in time,” he responded as he beamed. “I finally found you, Arisa. I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
A small “huh?” was all Arisa could manage before he spun around to fend off more demons.
After clearing away the immediate area, he turned back to Arisa, crouched down, and gently patted her head with a gloved hand. “Stay right here, okay?” he said with a kind smile. “I won’t let anything harm you.”
“Why are you helping me?” Arisa asked.
His eyes widened briefly in surprise and quickly fell back into a smile, though it felt somehow different from the smile he had been wearing just moments earlier. “Because I promised,” he answered.
“When this fight is over, would you consider forming a contract with me?” he asked.
Arisa looked at him, puzzled.
He chuckled. “I’d be happy if you’d think about it,” he said. He then stood back up and returned to the fray.
Cain had already killed off most of the demons, so the he and the stranger made short work of the few that had been left.