Posted on November 25th, by Frank Beddor in Blog, Featured. No Comments


The would-be warrior lifted the velvety blue top hat from a peg on one wall and rested it on his head. He was too young for the top hat; the brim pushed down on his ears, and almost covered his eyes. It would be several years before he’d have grown enough to properly wear a real Millinery top hat. Although thirteen years old, the large hat made him look years younger, like a child trying on his or her parent’s Millinery uniform, something every cadet in the school had no doubt attempted at least once.

Perhaps the hat didn’t fit, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t use it.

“Five tarty tarts says he can’t even get that hat to open,” said the other boy in the room, half hidden behind a low copper wall. He grinned in anticipation of what he felt would be the cadet’s certain failure here.

“I believe I will take that bet,” replied one of two girls in the room, confident in the boy’s abilities. Both girls also crouched behind the wall, anxiously watching the thirteen year old struggle with the top hat atop his head.

Overhearing them and brimming with characteristic Madigan self-confidence, the boy dropped into a flashy, martial stance like the one he’d seen his brother employ. He tipped the top hat off his head, caught the brim in nimble fingers, and threw the hat with just a flick of his wrist.

His three observers held their breaths. So did he.

The top hat flew several yards before thunking to the floor. It remained a top hat.

“Well,” the boy sighed. The hat should have spun into three rotating S-shaped blades designed to drop most anything mortal in one blow. Instead . . . just a top hat. There must have been some angle he hadn’t used, some squeeze or pinch of his fingers, some twist in his muscle he’d not done that made the hat not open.

Newton, the boy who’d bet against him, began laughing. Vesta, the girl who’d bet in favor of him, frowned.

“Never mind, Hatter,” she called, standing up straight so the wall only reached her waist. “It is a hard weapon to learn.”

“Five tarty tarts, five tarty tarts,” Newton sang, dancing a jig behind the wall. Though a white, gauzy film shaded his eyes, they still appeared delighted.

“How can you tell the hat did not open?” Vesta asked him with a frown.

She’d only known the blind boy a few hours. Indeed, she’d only known Madigan that long as well. She’d first encountered Hatter Madigan lounging around the Grand Hall of the Millinery that morning, watching the new cadets and their parents stepping through the main looking glass portal—the fastest means to the Millinery in all of Wonderland. A person could walk from the Millinery to Wondertropolis in a few days’ time, or perhaps ride a spirit-dane in half that. But the Crystal Continuum, which bound together most settled parts of Wonderland, offered near instantaneous travel. And here at the Heart Millinery, where those with proper family blood lines were trained to be the elite military force of the queendom, there was but one looking glass connected to the Crystal Continuum, and it was there in the Grand Hall.

“How could I tell the hat didn’t open?” Newton crowed. “Didn’t sound like it opened into its blades, is how. Sounded like this: ka-plunk! Not what a top hat sounds like when its blades are out. Five tarty tarts for me, five tarty tarts—”

Grr . . .” said Caldonia, the second girl, who had a habit of growling, and especially at Newton. “I’m gonna slug you to the floor if you don’t cut out that ballyhooing, I don’t care if you can see it comin’ or not, Newt.”

Newton stopped dancing. Cal didn’t make idle threats. They’d known each other prior to arriving at the Academy, had arrived together this morning in fact, and Caldonia was what some people called “scrappy.” The term fit her well. Most Wonderlanders, particularly those living in the shining, crystal capital of Wondertropolis, prided themselves on bold, bright colors and the finest possible materials for their clothing. Folks like Cal and Newton, from the outer provinces, maintained a more earthy and rough-spun palette in their clothes and lifestyle. Even while scrubbed clean—which was rare for Cal and Newton in their part of Wonderland—they carried the build and calluses of those who were used to the outdoors and work done beneath twin Wonderland suns. Not that it mattered now; they now wore the first year dress blue coats of beginning Millinery cadets.

The thirteen-year-old boy who’d thrown the top hat watched their animated teasing for a few moments before grinning to himself.

“I’d take cover if I were you,” he called to them. This was, after all, why he’d convinced them to break into this room in the first place. Time to put on a show.

The three stopped jabbering and looked at their new friend.

Hatter Madigan smiled broadly, eyes twinkling with mischief. Before his friends could respond, Hatter cried, “Here we go!” and twisted a dial set into the wall.

Newton and Vesta yelped and dropped behind the wall. Cal, too, dropped alongside, but didn’t make a sound, instead allowing her natural reflexes to take on a more defensive posture in preparation for whatever it was Hatter Madigan had in store.

The black and white checkered floor burst to life with a series of metallic clicks and whistles. In a heartbeat, ten Heart Suit card soldiers arose from white squares, each holding a deadly spear in its hands.

Hatter executed a marvelous backward handspring, landing himself beside the rack of Millinery weapons mounted on one portion of the checkerboard wall beside the room’s only exit.

The dome-shaped room, known as the H.A.T.B.O.X., consisted entirely of black and white tiles when not in use as a training facility. The floor tiles were uniform, about two meters square. The wall tiles, though, started off large at the base of the dome, and became successively smaller and warped as they reached the peak of the ceiling. Each tile could generate a malevolent but imaginary creature from Wonderland, humanoid or otherwise. These adversaries, used in the training of all Milliners, were programmed to not actually kill a cadet, but they could leave quite a mark on both body—and ego—if not quickly dispatched.

Hatter’s friends peeked over the wall. Several other short, copper walls dotted the floor, having sprouted up from black tiles to act as defensive barriers to the creatures created within the H.A.T.B.O.X. Several black tiles in the ceiling provided the only light, a vague, purpley hue that made anything white in the room—including the teeth of the cadets—vibrantly glow white. They watched, astounded, as Hatter Madigan donned a Millinery backpack and hunkered down to face his foes.

“He can’t wear that,” Cal said, eyes wide. “We don’t get to the backpacks until next year!”

“It looks good on him,” Vesta said. “Like it belongs to him, somehow.”

“Just training packs,” Newton added. “You could try one out too, Cal. Unless you’re a scared little dormouse.”

Caldonia growled at him as the robotic soldiers marched toward Hatter Madigan, spears outstretched. With a shout of joy, Hatter raced straight toward them.

“Hatter, no!” Vesta cried. Surely the young man would be impaled on the robot’s lances. He was good, but not that good, not yet, not possibly, even if his brother was the greatest Millinery bodyguard to ever—

At the last possible second, Hatter let his feet slip out from under him. He slid on his rear right between the two rows of adversaries, and somersaulted to his feet behind them. Before the automatons could react, Hatter reached over his own shoulder and into the backpack.

And what a backpack it was! It was not a military-grade pack—this one fit Hatter fine, as it was designed for cadets, but thus didn’t have access to the same weaponry as a real Millinery pack. Nevertheless, even this cadet-level backpack offered a fine selection of blades for its wearer to use.

Hatter imagined a standard razor-edged boomerang, which materialized instantly into his hand. He let fly with the weapon, decapitating five of the ten robots in one swoop.

But then the boomerang came hurtling back toward the thirteen year old. Vesta’s thoughts had been right: Hatter Madigan was good . . . but not that good.

“Whoa!” he cried, and leaped to one side as the boomerang whipped through the space where his body had been only moments before. It crashed into the far wall, jamming itself into a black tile beside the dial Hatter had pushed to activate the room.

Hatter’s mistake was watching the boomerang. His attention diverted from the five remaining robot warriors for just a moment. A moment was all they needed to close in on him, spear tips jabbing. Hatter’s Millinery cadet dresscoat took two vicious tears before he was able to skip backward and out of their way.

Only five left though. Easy pickings for—

A terrific grinding sound echoed throughout the H.A.T.B.O.X. as a large black tile began to flip itself over. From out of the darkness behind that tile issued a roar that sent shudders down Hatter’s spine.

“Uh-oh,” Hatter said, glancing at the dial on the wall. The boomerang arced once with blue electricity.

“Hatter?” Vesta called as even the robot cards paused. “What did you do?”

Hatter licked his lips.

“I may have skipped a couple levels,” he said.

A burst of conical fire belched from the darkness beyond the black tile, which Hatter dodged at the last second. Happily—Hatter would later claim it was skill and skill alone, that he’d planned the entire maneuver—the fire incinerated the five remaining card soldier robots.

Unhappily, the fire came scorching from the mouth of a jabberwock, Wonderland’s fiercest predator.

It came galumphing from the darkness, colored all black except for its mad-red eyes and the fire flicking out of its mouth. Real-life jabberwocks had skin like that of many lizards, but the programmer of this level of the H.A.T.B.O.X. must’ve thought a sooty black monster would be even more frightening. He was right. Hatter was no coward, but even he was awed by the sight of the creature. Dragon-like and big as a tyrannosaur, the jabberwock lumbered toward the young man on four scaly legs, wings beating rhythmically atop its shoulders. As Hatter took a shocked step backward, the jabberwock reared back on its rear legs like a human. It opened its jaw, which distended from its mouth like a great white shark, revealing blackened, grotesque gums and shadowy, vicious teeth.

Hatter sprang into action as he recognized the tell-tale inhalation that would inevitably lead to a tongue of fire from the monster. The backpack wouldn’t help him, not yet. He needed protection, and the cadet backpack offered only weapons.

“Stay down!” he shouted to his new friends.

Hatter needn’t have worried. The other three, already crouched low behind the wall, had the good sense to stay there. Still, they couldn’t resist peeking around its corners to watch Hatter in action.

Hatter raced past the jabberwock, who did indeed shoot a breath of flame at the cadet, its head swinging down in a wide arc from atop its long neck. Fire tickled the tails of Hatter’s Millinery coat.

Without stopping, Hatter scooped the top hat from the center of the room where it had fallen. The jabberwock roared and shifted its massive body to one side to track its victim.

“That’s right, Jabby,” Hatter said to himself. “Right this way . . .”

As if complying, the jabberwock continued to swing around until its fearsome head had lined up with its tiny target. It reared back to inhale, then leaned forward to breathe fire.

Hatter raced toward one curved wall as the fire shot toward him. In an amazing display of acrobatics, Hatter raced up the wall for several meters until he was almost horizontal, then flipped himself over. As he flipped, he flicked the top hat in his hands, hoping his ploy would work.

And it did.

The hat expanded in his hands to create an oval shield of whirling blades. Hatter landed right in the path of the jabberwock’s fire, shield braced in both hands. The fire split in two like a reptilian tongue, searing the outer edges of the hat shield.

“Wow,” Caldonia said. “That was incredible.”

“He dead?” Newton asked. “Never heard anything like this, what’s happening?”

“He is not dead,” Vesta said. “And you cannot die in the H.A.T.B.O.X. anyway. At least, I do not believe so . . .”

“Not what I heard,” Newton argued. “If the safeties were disabled—”

That was all the conversation they had time for. Infuriated, the jabberwock burbled toward Hatter. Hatter peered over the edge of the shield in time to see the dragon’s loathsome mouth come jabbing down atop of him.

Hatter leapt out of the way, but not before losing the top hat shield to the jabberwock’s merciless jaws. Hatter was left, limbs akimbo, sprawled across the H.A.T.B.O.X. floor.

The jabberwock lunged toward him, mouth agape, ready to tear the boy apart. He hadn’t even started his first full year as a Millinery Cadet, and already he was all but dying in combat.

That’s when unseen lights popped on from behind select white tiles in the ceiling. The dim purple glow of blacklight died instantly.

The jabberwock froze, then shimmered, then disappeared, along with the remnants of the card soldiers.

“Hatter Madigan,” an amplified voice said, echoing through the chamber. “You have accessed the Holographic And Transmutative Base Of Xtremecombat without permission. Gather the other three cadets and report outside the room immediately.”

Hatter climbed to his feet. His three friends—at least, he hoped they were still his friends—slowly rose as well.

“Oops,” Hatter said.

“Yeah, oops,” Newton groused. “Told you we’d get in trouble before we came in here.”

“Then you shouldn’t’ve come,” Caldonia said, and called him one of their lands’ playful insults: “You silly uff.”

“Miss all the fun?” Newton snapped back, already starting to smile again. “No way. You’re the uff.”

Hatter didn’t resist a grin himself as he rejoined his friends. They trooped toward the H.A.T.B.O.X. door, which whisked upward as the copper walls sank back into the floor and the danger-room reset itself to normal.

Awaiting them in the hallway stood Millinery Tutor Smollet, a tall, long-eared albino whose natural expression was cross. Now his face looked perfectly furious, though his voice did not rise. The blue-green veins crisscrossing his translucent skin seemed to throb with anger.

“I would ask for an explanation, but doubt I would be impressed by any forthcoming from the likes of you,” Smollet said, eyeing each cadet in turn. “And what happened to your coat, Cadet Madigan? You are minutes away from first year orientation and you expect to arrive in a uniform with holes in it?”

Hatter fingered the slashes left behind by the card robots. “I probably should’ve changed into my utilities before going in,” he said.

Smollet was outwardly unimpressed by the young man’s wit, even as the other three covered their mouths to smother laughter.

“Utilities,” Smollet said. “Indeed.”

He removed a pocket watch from his shining green vest and studied it.

“You have three—two! Two minutes to use the Crystal Continuum to return to your quarters, change, and join us in the Grand  Hall. And may Latch have mercy if you are late.”

Latch. The mere mention of the head instructor’s name filled all four cadets with dread matching—if not exceeding—that which they’d experienced with the jabberwock.

“Yes, sir,” Hatter said.

Smollet shook his head, his ears waving. “Honestly,” he muttered. “The last cadet to pull such a stunt was Dalton Madigan. You should have known better, Cadet Madigan.”

With that, Smollet stepped into a looking glass and vanished.

The four friends looked at each other.

“You’re a madman,” Newton announced to Hatter.

Hatter smiled expansively. Madman. It had a nice ring to it.

“See you at orientation!” he said, and leaped into the looking glass himself.

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