[A/N: Sorry for the hiatus! Unfortunately life got in the way, but I'll try to update regularly from here on!]
“Well, I’m sure that was nothing to worry about,” said Rupert, tugging at his collar. “Probably some minor turbulence.” But Cat paid him no mind, she was peering out the greenhouse door at the passengers queued before the dance hall. They reminded her of tropical birds, the ladies dressed in resplendent colors and the men in dark, formal tailcoats.
“What’s going on?” asked Cat. “Why are they dressed like that?”
Confused, Rupert replied, “Why, the ball of course. Remember?”
“Golly, they’re having a ball down there?” She turned to face Rupert with a pleading expression. “Can we go?”
“Well, I don’t see why not…”
The guard at the entrance of the hall looked over their outfits with disdain. Still, he took their names and handed Cat a dance card embossed with floral designs, along with a pencil. After a quick bow, he turned and showed them inside.
The inside of the dance hall was one of the most wonderful things Cat had ever seen. Elegant bushes and trees sprouted from the floor, and a magnificent chandelier washed the room in a romantic light. Despite this, the place gave her an odd feeling. While she’d never seen anything so beautiful in her life, there persisted the feeling that she’d been here before.
“Doesn’t that chandelier look dimmer to you?” whispered Rupert, but she didn’t seem to hear.
Something was wrong. She was sure of it now. Something was dreadfully, unchangeably, irrevocably wrong. All of a sudden, Cat experienced the curious sensation of being inflated like a balloon, like what a mountaineer might feel on scaling incredible heights. It was such a strange light-headedness that she would’ve fallen over if Rupert hadn’t been tugging her hand towards the dance floor. Slowly, she regained use of her wrinkled ears and took in the music echoing from the string band at the back. It sounded discordant and awful. Where was she? All around her danced stiff men and strange birds. It smelled nauseating in here, like a thousand flowers had wilted and died. She wanted to go home. Again the tug at her hand. This time she followed it with her eyes, traveled up the hand to a dark-suited arm and finally to the gaunt and hideous face above, topped like a demon pyramid by a single stab of black hair.
“Monster!” Cat screamed, pulling away from the hand and stumbling backward. Immediately she crashed into a young girl, who, up until that point, had been piling her paper plate high with cucumber sandwiches at the refreshments stand. They exploded on impact, spilling rotfruit punch and cucumber sandwich slices onto the marble floor.
The monster’s face contorted with anger as he shouted: “Watch your mouth, hag!” Almost as if surprised with himself, he clapped a hand over his mouth. But before he could say anything more, an older gentleman gripped his shoulder and spun him around with a meaty hand. “I beg your pardon! Do not think that I’ll stand idly by while you insult that fair lady! Apologize immediately or-” The booming gentleman was cut short by a fist to the kidneys. The crowd screamed and Cat thought she saw someone faint, but the monster didn’t mind. He grabbed the gentleman by the shoulders and put his knee through his face. Then, with the man lying prone on the ground, he descended, ripping into the gentleman’s audacious suit with clawed hands.
The band, unknowing or uncaring of the carnage, kept playing their hellish noise. They plucked and pulled faster and faster, working up to a feverish tempo as the two wrestled desperately. The monster finally drew blood, flicking the stuff from his ragged fingernails into the horrified crowd. The gentleman’s scream echoed again and again. If everyone hadn’t been so captured by the gory display, they might have noticed a dark-haired gentleman turn away, his sharp-nosed silhouette making its escape into the labyrinth of corridors and rooms beyond.
And then, as suddenly as the fight began, into the circle burst this enormous woman. She was half as wide as she was tall, and over her hulking muscular frame hung a boxy leopard-print pantsuit. It was amazing Cat hadn’t noticed her earlier. “Enough,” she grumbled in a voice that could erode mountains. When the monster wouldn’t stop, she sighed, and, like a kitten, lifted him off the gentleman by the scruff of his suit. In the air, the man flailed and scratched at her arm but she lifted him higher and threw him down hard onto the marble floor.
A cold sensation ran down Cat’s side, and she felt her dress to find that she was wet. Why was she wet? The floor was wet too, it was slick with an orange liquid that smelled like rot. Where was she? What was she doing here? A sickening crack caught her attention and she spun around to see the strangest scene. A giant woman pounded a man repeatedly into the ground, while another bled profusely beside them. She turned and saw a young girl beside her, cucumbers and punch speckling her dress. Like the rest of the crowd, she stared jaw agape at the vicious beatdown. This girl, she had the most beautiful red hair. It was almost as beautiful as Sarah’s.
Cat’s head pounded, it felt like she was being crushed under water. A stumble backward, then another. She tried to take a step but couldn’t find it, she’d hooked her foot on a tree root. Now she was falling. Falling. Crash.
She dreamed of fire.
“Please don’t do this Mama,” the little girl pleaded, face buried in Cat’s dress. “You don’t have to do this! I’ll go with her. Okay? I’ll go with her so please, don’t leave!”
Cat pulled her daughter in towards her. She smelled like strawberries and ash. The once beautiful flower dome now burned all around them, wooden support beams cracking and groaning with heat and stress. The ceiling wouldn’t hold out much longer. It would collapse and crush everything inside. Her life’s work, gone in an instant.
Outside, the explosions were growing louder. They were almost out of time. “Oh, bug,” Cat whispered as she stroked her hair. She tried to say something, anything, but her throat closed up. All she could do was whisper “I’m so sorry.”
And the vision changes. She’s alone now. Wooden beams and glass fell around her, and the heavy wooden scaffold and glass dome above creaked dangerously. The booming grew to a crescendo and with one final explosion, the wrought-iron doors to the dome exploded inward, revealing the tall Woman behind it. Her and her ever-present black bowler hat. Cat smiled. Too late. Enough hiding, she thought as she took the first swing. The axe sunk deep into the wood. Enough running. Another swing. The Woman had spotted Cat and sprinted toward her, eyes widening as she realized what Cat attempted to do. Too late, she thought as she reared up to swing one last time.
The crack of her axe coincided with the crack of The Woman’s revolver. As her sapling fell, Cat looked down at the flower slowly blooming in her chest. Soon, she, too, fell, and her blood mixed with the dirt and nurtured the roots dying beneath her. The last thing she saw as she looked up at the wreckage of her world was the gentle snowfall of a bright winter morning. Snowflakes melted on her face as the ceiling finally caved in and buried everything underground.
The first thing Cat saw when she opened her eyes was the gentle snowfall of a bright winter morning. The world was deathly quiet. She sat up slowly, head pounding. It felt like there were explosions behind her eyes. There were people all around, dressed like birds of paradise. Everyone stood frozen in place, faces angled up in confusion and amazement. Of course. Tourists were always impressed when they stepped inside the flower dome. Cat just giggled and tried to catch the snowflakes on her tongue. They tasted like ash.
In that moment, somewhere deep below the hull of the ship, encased in the piping and clockwork engines of the Wax Wind, a clocktower struck One. The chiming of the bells sounded through the halls, echoing and amplifying through carefully carved tunnels until it suffused every room on the ship. Although the passengers had no way of knowing it, upon hearing the sound, a single, simultaneous chill ran down everyone’s spine. They wouldn’t have long to contemplate it. A clink resonated through the room as the chain holding the chandelier to the domed roof broke cleanly in two.
The couple standing transfixed below the chandelier barely moved in time as it fell and shattered against the hard marble floor. As it did, it released a wave of blinding light. Tiny crystal shrapnel suffused the air, mixing with the snow. Each glowed like dying stars. And, in seconds, each faded into dull, bloody rocks. As the light subsided, the stunned passengers unblocked their eyes and took in the horrible scene before them. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman screamed and a couple fainted. There, half encased in crystal, blood dripping from his once-great bone white moustache, was the broken and naked body of the King’s own Dr. Childe Widdershins.