“That’s not an answer,” I say.

“It’s not meant to be,” he replies without looking at me, then sits himself on his throne in the middle of a sky-lit hall.

“What a fabulous job you did to the castle.” The Pillar, cigar in mouth, admires the place. “I feel like I’m in Taj Mahal.”

“I’m humbled,” the Executioner says. “Senor Pillardo himself compliments me.”

“What happened to the horses?” the Pillar asks.

“Sorry, senior. They all died after you left. I tried to be nice to them, but they kept kicking my men, looking for you. I had to shoot them all,” the Executioner says, pouring himself a pink drink. “We built a casino where your horses used to live. Very profitable, but nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

The Pillar grins. “How does no one go there anymore if it’s too crowded?”

I sense it’s not a question, but some kind of an inside joke.

“It’s Wonderland logic,” the Executioner explains to me. “It’s like saying: it ain’t over until it’s over.” He hands the Pillar a drink.

“Ah, I remember those.” The Pillar sips his drink. “I remember when we used to say: always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

The Executioner is amused. “I loved that phrase. Because if you went to their funeral, they were dead already.” He turns to me with a smile. “I bet your friend here hasn’t seen the Wonderland days.”

“Be careful.” The Pillar winks. “She thinks she is Alice. The Real one.”

This throws the Executioner off. “Oh, my.” He chuckles. “That’s a new one.” He turns to me again. “Alice is dead, darling. True, we can’t remember what she looked like, but she’s dead.”

Just when I am about to ask why he’s so sure, a horde of young and skinny children are brought into the castle, wearing tattered clothes, dirt sticking to their sunburned skin.

“What now?” The Executioner pouts at the man who brought them in.

“I thought you’d like to see that we cut their fingers like you asked us.” the man says.

My eyes flip, staring at the children’s bandaged hands. They cut their fingers? What the hell?

“Two knuckles from each kid,” the man says. “Just like you always demand. Should I send them to the field now?”

My anger chokes me up. I turn and stare at the Pillar. He signals for me to stay cool and hush it down. I will explain later, he mouths.

But damn it, I won’t stay cool. Who is this horrible Executioner? I was right when I thought of ridding the world of him.

Chapter 22

Buckingham Palace, London

“I want you to find this Lewis Carroll and bring him to me,” the Queen roared at Margaret. “Now!”

“How am I supposed to do that, My Queen? You know what kind of a monster he is.”

“Just figure it out!” The Queen padded the chamber left and right, hands behind her back. “It’s too soon for an apocalypse. I want a mad world. Not a dead world. Besides, why is he here? What does he want with the end of the world?”

“I have no idea, but what you’re asking me isn’t something I can do,” Margaret says. “Normally I’d use the Cheshire’s help with something like that, but he made it clear he isn’t on our side. He just wants to bring chaos into the human world for his own giggles and grins. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in this with Lewis Carroll.”

“Then the Pillar is our only chance,” the Queen says. “Where is he?”

“Haven’t seen him since the last time when I visited this Alice girl to convince her she should be one of us,” Margaret said. “I met him briefly afterward, trying to get the key from him, but he said he’d like to keep it until we find the next one. Sort of a guarantee, so nothing bad happens to him until we both fulfill our sides of the deal.”

“I know how to get the key from the Pillar later, that’s hardly my problem,” the Queen said. “Don’t mention it to him now. Just find him, and ask for his help. He has his own out-of-this-world methods. He should be able to stop this Wonderland Monster.”

“I will look for him right away, My Queen.” Margaret was checking her phone. “Wait, I just received information: he took Alice and flew all the way to Columbia?”

The Queen stopped. “Columbia?” She tilted her head. “You’re thinking what I am thinking?”

“The Executioner?” Margaret spelled out slowly.

“It makes sense. Whoever designed this plague in the hookahs must be related to the Executioner. It’s where all the hallucinogens are cooked.” The Queen rubbed her chin.

“So the Pillar is looking for a cure in Columbia?”

“I hope that’s all he is looking for,” the Queen said. “I hope he isn’t digging into the past, or this will have dire consequences. What kind of complicated day is today?” She romped her feet on the ground.

“Today is Sunday, My Queen.”

“Here’s my second request to the Parliament,” she said, chin up. “No more Sundays!”

“That’s impossible. It’s an important day to the people.”

“No, it’s not. I haven’t been cool with the days of the week being seven anyways. God made the world in six days. And Lewis Carroll, when he was still sane, thought about six impossible things for breakfast. And we’re looking for six keys. Now six weekdays feels about right.”

“Whatever you say, My Queen.” Margaret chewed on the words.

“So, back to our problem. Send someone to follow the Pillar in Columbia.”

“You’re aware that very few Wonderlanders have the guts to go there, right? Not even me or the Cheshire.”

“Then find those who have the guts. Wasn’t Wonderland full of gory loons? Find one and send them after the Pillar to expedite his search for a cure.”

“I need to make some phone calls,” Margaret said and left the chamber.

The Queen turned and stared into the mirror. “What are you doing, Pillar?” she mumbled. “Are you planning on opening those old wounds from the past again?”

Chapter 23

Mushroomland, Columbia

Gritting my teeth, I watch the poor kids being led outside.

“Where are they going?” I ask, my hands trembling.

“None of your business, little girl,” the Executioner says. “I’m starting to lose my patience with you.”

“Why not have another drink?” the Pillar interrupts.

Oh, God. How I hate both of them.

“Indeed.” The Executioner pours more of the pink liquid. “And since you’re in the mood for more drinks, here is what I will do. I know you have a question you want to ask me.”

“Finally,” I hiss.

“Yes,” the Pillar says. “I’m looking for a cure for the Hookah of Hearts plague that’s sweeping over the world by the minute—suspiciously enough, it has no effect on this region of the world.”

“Oh, that.”

“I know you don’t care about the world outside of Mushroomland, but I really need to stop the plague,” the Pillar says.

“I saw it on TV this morning,” the Executioner says. “Very funny plague. Did you see the naked teacher on the bicycle chasing his wife, trying to kill her?”

“Haven’t had the pleasure,” the Pillar says.

“Well... I understand it’s Lewis Carroll who spread the disease,” the Executioner considers. “I have to admit I don’t want to have anything to do with him. You know how mad and angry he can get, with all those migraines of his.”

I can’t believe they’re talking about Lewis Carroll, but finding the cure is my priority now. I don’t say a word.

“I know,” the Pillar says, “but we need the cure.”

“The thing is, there is no cure, Senor Pillardo.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“I’m sure because you have no idea what the hookahs do to people.”

“It turns them into nuts, just like the mushrooms did to me,” I say.

“That’s an understatement to the brilliance of what this plague really does to people.” The Executioner taps the diamond grail he is drinking from. “This plague does something to people you would never have imagined in a million years. And once you realize what it is, you’ll understand why there is no cure.”