The cliffside port Captain Cree had flown them to straddled the border between the Land of Rain and the Land of Rivers. The town sat precariously at the cliff’s edge, dozens of rickety docks stretching out into the clouds and most already moored with airships. Far below the swaying docks, golden hills of farmland stretched out from the base of the cliffs to the very horizon. Curling rivers by the dozens cut through the hills, all fed from the plateau’s runoff. Thus, Redd explained to Alec as Cree landed the ship, the name “Land of Rivers.” Alec found the literalism of Wunderland’s naming conventions rather sensible.
They had landed at that particular port town to stock supplies and, after that, Cree and her crew were to go on their way while Hattie, Alec, and Lulu on theirs. So, as the others went about the business of bartering with the dockside merchants, Alec and Redd stood leaning over the fence at the cliff’s edge. Redd pointed out landmarks below - the towns along the rivers he knew the names of, the shadowy pillars at the very edge of the horizon that made up a mountain range Redd called the Towers. They were strange shapes that Alec had to squint to make clearer, and to him they looked nearly like great big fingers poking up out of the land. It was an impressive view by the standards of what Alec had seen of this odd world so far.
Behind them, Cree and the others loaded up the docked airship with crates and barrels of supplies generously donated by Hattie as compensation for Cree’s assistance. The others left Alec and Redd to their own devices. As Alec soaked up what dwindling time he had left with the other boy, a sad, small feeling began to take root in his stomach. And by the time Cree called out for Redd to get a move on and load up the ship to depart, that feeling had blossomed into a very novel sensation to Alec; loneliness. He watched Redd take heed of Cree and gather up the last couple of crates to bring aboard. As they prepared to depart, Alec stood with Hattie and Lulu at the foot of the gangplank and watched the ship cast off.
He’d made his first friend, first real friend, and now Redd was leaving him behind.
As Alec waved a half-hearted goodbye, he wondered what he was supposed to do about that feeling.
“Hey!” came a shout before Alec had much time to think on it. Redd leaned over the railing of the airship as it pulled higher and higher into the sky. “I’ll see you again! Soon!” he shouted, waving an enthusiastic hand overhead, the one he'd put Alec's wristband on.
Alec let himself believe it, and so the feeling in his stomach turned into one that was a bit more cautiously hopeful. At his side, Lulu nudged him. “You will,” she said, smiling. “Don’t worry about it.”
The port town proper was a cluster of buildings stacked precariously one atop the other. Weaving through the narrow spaces between buildings were cobblestone streets filled with people buying and selling and trading and bartering. It was colorful chaos, stalls crushing together in the tight space filled to bursting with anything anyone could possibly be looking to buy. Alec’s arm was firmly entwined with Lulu’s as they trailed behind Hattie. Lulu seemed paranoid about losing Alec in the crowd.
He wasn’t overly pleased when she pointed out his short stature was the main cause of her concern.
Alec did what he could to keep up but there were so many things to catch his eye. There were people in every shape and color and, seemingly, historical and cultural period. Others like Lulu, too - no rabbits, but there were some with the odd pair of feline ears instead of human, some with scaled tails, a dog’s nose or a goat’s hindquarters. But such was the nature of Wunderland, Alec was learning. Given everything that had happened to him since landing in the strange world, a man with goat horns and hooves instead of feet seemed hardly out of the ordinary any more.
The things being sold, too, were hard for Alec to peel his eyes from. Some looked perfectly familiar - books and spools of fabric and the odd stand full of miscellaneous junk a pawnbroker was swapping for other bits of miscellaneous junk. But there were other stalls piled high with bottles of bright glowing potions, levitating trinkets, singing flowers, and brass eye-wear that promised the user could see into the future. And Alec, as he had long ago suspended his beliefs on what was possible and what was not, was inclined to believe they could. Especially when Hattie paused by that particular stand to spend a minute or so muttering to herself about the latest advancements in the science of spectaculae oraculi.
In the end she was persuaded into buying three pairs.
Alec watched a great deal of colorful bills of paper money exchange hands over them, but Hattie seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of the stuff. He had to wonder if she was, perhaps, loaded.
And, as they passed by other stalls, each filled with more fascinating trinkets than the next that Hattie spent substantially more and more of her multicolored money on, Alec began to feel very strongly this was the case.
Carrying capacity didn’t seem to be a concern of hers either. Her magical hat was gone, disappeared into a handsome leather bag she now carried that had the same capabilities. Anything she put inside disappeared into its depths, and Alec had to admit he was dead curious as to how that worked. He’d tried asking about her hat on the airship ride over, but the ensuing speech on magical mechanics of dimensional warping for storage purposes had made him regret his decision immediately and entirely. He was fast learning to be very selective on what things he asked Hattie to explain.
Well, especially considering how reluctant she was to explore certain topics.
Lulu, on the other hand, was more eager to answer him on some things. While they waited for Hattie to go through a stall full of books and maps and scrolls filled with glowing writing, Alec nudged Lulu and gestured out to the crowd of passersby.
“What’s the deal with the people here?” he asked. Lulu scrunched her nose at him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, scrounging around his thoughts for a way to explain, “They look like someone flipped through a world history book from back on Earth, plucked people out at random, gave some of them animal ears, and landed them here.” He couldn’t think of another way to put it. Wunderland had people and places and things that looked so adjacent to familiar Alec felt it couldn’t be a coincidence. Lulu thought on that for a while.
“Couldn’t tell ya, really. I’ve been to different times and places in your world plenty, I get it,” she said, putting a finger to her chin and frowning. “I know sometimes people fall through the cracks between worlds back and forth. Yours into this one, people from here to over there. But it’s a bit like the chicken and the goose, ain’t it. Which came first?” She shrugged.
“Well, which one did come first?” Alec asked, moving right past the correction he quashed the urge to make.
“Wunderland? Or the Otherlands? Aw, kid, I dunno. That’s something only big brains like Hightopp sit around in their big fancy universities and libraries thinkin' about. And I,” she said, and beat a proud fist to her chest, “never went to school!”
A thought occurred to Alec. “Wait, Otherlands. Is there more than just the one I’m from?” Lulu nodded.
“Oh yeah, loads! There’s the one out by the second star, the one that’s just made out of like, cupcakes and candy and stuff - there’s this one that’s got no people in it, just toys,” and she rambled off an exhaustive list of even stranger sounding places that made Alec’s head spin.
“Okay, okay. I regret asking. Got it. The universe is a lot weirder than I thought,” he waved his hands to cut her off.
“It sure is!” Lulu offered. Alec did his best to digest all that, but he felt only all the more confused than he had been before he’d asked. Lulu must have caught onto the spinning thoughts going around in his head and offered, “Well I do know that, however long ago it was, Wunderland was created when a cosmic, inter-dimensional butterfly made of pure light and magic fell asleep somewhere in space and dreamed it into existence. If that helps.”
It didn’t, really.
Eventually Hattie lead them, by some means of navigation Alec couldn’t begin to parse, to where the crowds thinned out and the stalls promised less and less spectacular wares and more run of the mill market offerings. Bread carts, meat wagons, tables piled high with vegetables and fruit and sacks of grain and cuts of fish kept cool on trays of ice. The stall keepers here were much more subdued, less prone to launching themselves in front of prospective buyers to make their aggressive sales pitches. Instead they haggled over grain prices and produce quality the same way they might in any farmer’s market back on Earth. They might have still been haggling over vegetables of shapes and sizes alien to Alec, but there was a certain amount of comfort in the almost-familiarity of it.
Hattie stopped them at stalls of all the basic food groups. She bought sacks of things that looked like potatoes, yellow squash-shaped things and plum-purple fruit that looked like apples. She bought bags of purple rice-like grain, several loaves of what was definitely bread, and a good deal of something that might have been cheese. The same confusing transaction of multicolored bills took place every time she did so, and each time she barely haggled. A few keepers seemed to catch wind of this and took advantage, but a few others insisted on haggling her down to make up for them.
One keeper in particular, an older woman with a goose beak, even took the time to chastise Hattie on her haggling etiquette.
They passed a stall selling sugary-savory smelling cooked meat on sticks and Hattie bought them one each. Alec ate his in contemplation, standing with Lulu as Hattie finished up her purchasing.
That was when something caught the corner of Alec’s eye, a flash of something colorful and moving fast. But, when he turned there were too many other colorful things in the marketplace to pinpoint which exactly had caught his attention or why any of them had made him feel the urge to turn. Something had prickled the hairs on the back of his neck, but, as he scratched the apprehension away, nothing in particular stood out to him and he shook it off. It was probably nothing.
Except - it kept happening as they made their way back towards the docks. Every so often the briefest flash of an elusive something would make Alec feel the urge to turn around and look. It drove him steadily to madness - the market was full of things moving in and out of his periphery. It was nothing, he kept telling himself.
By the time Hattie had brought them full circle back to the docks, it had let up as Alec very firmly stopped paying it heed. Whatever it had been. If Lulu had noticed his sudden onset paranoia, she said nothing. Alec felt too ridiculous to say anything, anyway. And if he kept a little closer to Lulu than strictly necessary to keep up, that was neither here nor there.
At a pier just a few down from where Cree had taken off only an hour or so prior, Hattie bargained for a small skiff. Nowhere nearly as large as the airship they had liberated from the Ace of Spades, this was a small longboat that could neatly fit the three of them that didn’t seem to put Hattie out of too much money. It didn’t look the sturdiest, but as they climbed aboard, it didn’t immediately drop out of the sky. So that was something. It dipped as they sat and Hattie undid the rope ties. She gave a shove off docks that rocked them gently into open air and Alec hadn’t thought he had a fear of heights before now. But. This was different.
Aboard the bigger airship it hadn’t exactly hit him how they were suspended in mid air by questionable, magical means. With nothing between them and the ground but several hundred meters of air.
But now, in a much smaller longboat, with no railing at the sides to speak of, Alec was very keenly aware of the wind whipping at his hair and the weightlessness that felt increasingly precarious by the second.
“Now,” Hattie said, situating herself at the cluster of levers and controls at the back of the boat to poke and prod at them, “I’ve read plenty on flying. This can’t be terribly complicated.”
Alec took a deep breath that did much less in the way of steadying himself than he had hoped. They drifted further and further from the docks and Alec watched them forlornly go. He sat facing the back towards Hattie, unsure if this was better or worse than seeing where they were going. At least he could see when Hattie pulled a lever, cranked a knob, spun a wheel, and could brace himself for each lurch of their vessel that it caused.
She got the modest sails up eventually and they picked up a stiff wind that got them going on their way. Hattie did a little victory “Aha!” at that, and then again when she finally found the controls to ignite thrusters that gave them a bigger push. It jumped at first, but with a delicate hand on the controls Hattie eased them into gentle acceleration.
She looked inordinately pleased with herself.
They glided steadily out away from the cliffs, and, with Hattie taking it slow, Alec gradually let himself unclench. This wasn’t so bad, he thought.
“See? Not so hard. Flying’s in my blood, after all-,” Hattie began, but was interrupted by a sudden grinding, crunching noise and a BANG that made a plume of black smog burst from the back of the boat’s engine.
“Uh-oh, that didn’t sound so good-,” Lulu said.
And then they fell out of the sky.