Chapter 3: To Brawl, or Not to Brawl?

“Anything interesting? Um…well…” Madnes fidgeted under Oz’s scrutiny.

Was he allowed to tell people about Wonderland? Cheshire hadn’t said anything about that yet. But maybe the better question was: would anyone believe him?

“Just…busy with responsibilities. School and all that drama, you know,” he ended up saying instead, and watched as another cream-filled bun vanished into Oz’s mouth. “Wow, you eat a lot of those. Is that stress eating?”

Oz shot him a glare. “I do not stress eat.”

“…Okay.” Madnes shrugged. “How about you? Anything exciting going on? Travel plans and rich-people stuff?”

The teacup rattled in Oz’s hand. How dare lowly Madnes inquire into his personal life? He could see the smug look behind those blank violet eyes of his, pretending to be ignorant and innocent. It was infuriating.

‘No; I must control my emotions. I will not let such a peasant get the better of me,’ thought Oz.

He would be smart about this. He would take his time and convince Cheshire that he was more worthy to be the Madness Solver, and Cheshire would then transfer the power over to him instead. He’d… But how long would he have to wait for that to happen? What if Cheshire would never consider him worthy of the power? That would make all this time and effort a waste. Could he chance that? Could he risk wasting time, here, when Mother might be alive and in danger somewhere?

“Must be nice having a wealthy family,” Madnes was saying, awkwardly, trying to make some conversation. “Lavish vacations, the best education…I can’t begin to imagine what that’s like.” He gave a small laugh. “Do they spoil you much?”

The next bun fell from Oz’s hand.

“Oh, by the way, how’s your mom doing? I remember your dad saying something about her having to leave the island for health reasons, years ago… What was that about?”

Something snapped inside Oz.

Madnes was still wearing a cheerful mask when a large claw suddenly swiped across his head.

Madnes gaped, stunned, his top hat falling off. Oz’s hand was the shape of a large crow’s claws, five long finger-talons, and a pair of black wings stretched out from his back. More feathers made a black crown circling from behind his ears.

“Oz…?” Pain told Madnes that there were slash marks across his face. Oz leaped over the table, claws ready to slash open his chest next. But even as Madnes saw it coming, he couldn’t force himself to move. Nothing made sense. The friend he had once known so well—he wasn’t even human. Had he really not known anything about Oz at all?

The claws came. Madnes envisioned them ripping him open. But then, just before the claws touched, a power inside Madnes activated and made his legs move.

His whole body moved on its own—getting out of the chair and sidestepping away from Oz’s attack.

Oz landed on the chair, then turned and clawed the air just as Madnes’s head ducked.

Oz screamed inwardly at himself for losing his self-control and exposing his true nature. But hate had won over inside him. He would kill Madnes and steal the Madness Solver power from him by force. It was too late to switch to any other strategy now.

“W-what are you, Oz?” Madnes said, ducking and dodging the claws. “Are you something from Wonderland? Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“I’ve been wanting to do this.” Oz sneered. “I deserve the power. Not a wretch like you who can’t even use it properly.”

Claws caught his shoulder and Madnes bit off a yelp in pain.

Something made Madnes fall flat to the ground and both his legs kick out into Oz’s stomach, sending the rich boy staggering back into the table, upsetting the teacups.

Oz ground his teeth. The Madness Solver power was fighting back—it wouldn’t allow its master to die so easily. But the Hatter boy was weak and inexperienced. Now was the best chance Oz would ever have.

Oz lunged in a dive, wings propelling him forward, both his clawed hands stretched before him and ready to tear flesh.

Madnes was still getting up off the ground. His body rolled aside from one clawed hand, but the other grazed deep through his arm as Oz flew past. “Ahk!” he cried out. Madnes struggled back up on his feet, trying to block the pain from his mind. “Why, Oz? Do you hate me this much? Or is this just about the Madness Solver power?”

“I’m taking it from you, Madnes. And no amount of begging is going to stop me.”

Clutching his bleeding arm, Madnes could almost see the dark hatred pouring from Oz like a dark cloud. Why was it only now that he could see it? So much bitterness directed towards him; how did he never notice it before?

“Why do you hate me? What did I ever do to you, Oz?” Angry now, Madnes’s other arm lashed out to block another of Oz’s swipes, while his knee came up into Oz’s stomach.

Oz fell forward, but not before pulling Madnes’s legs out from under him. They both hit the ground. Oz tried to get his vise-like claws around Madnes’s neck. Madnes struggled to avoid the death grip.

“You’re in the way,” Oz said coldly. “No one comes between me and my goal. Your death is a necessity, Madnes.”

“A necessity for what?” Madnes searched to find some glimmer of light, some speck of empathy inside the person Oz used to be, but the soul in Oz’s gaze had long since frozen over.

Claws looped around his neck. “Don’t— I can help you.” Madnes could barely speak against the powerful claws closing off his throat. Nothing he could say would change Oz’s mind; the person he knew was gone.

‘I abandoned him to become like this, didn’t I?’ thought Madnes. ‘I should have been there by his side. It’s my fault. I deserve this…’

Everything grew hazy, like mist slowly drowning out the world.

He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t think.

You have to fight!

Fight? At first, he thought Oz had spoken, but the face above him was set and grim.

Fight…if he didn’t fight back, there was no hope of changing anything, no hope of making anything better, of serving some sort of purpose in this world. He couldn’t afford to die, just yet.

Madnes balled up his fist and aimed for Oz’s exposed throat. The punch rang with a loud thud, knocking the air out of Oz and sending him backwards, choking.

The claws released him, and Madnes’s body mimicked the same punch-kick moves that Oz had just used on him. A powerful kick to the stomach sent Oz down into the garden’s fence post.

Both of them paused for a moment, coughing and panting.

‘He’s using my own moves against me? The power of the Madness Solver: intelligence, quick learning, and inhuman strength,’ thought Oz, as he tried to gather himself and prepare for a better attack plan.

Just then, the door to the backyard swung open.

Both he and Madnes looked over in alarm. But the person standing there wasn’t who either of them expected it to be.

“Long time no see, Madnes, Oz.” The gruff voice spoke around a stubble jaw. The man entered the garden, hands in the pockets of a duster coat, his torso crisscrossed with belts and knives, and a pistol at each hip. His boots thudded the ground with every step.

“Am I interrupting somethin’?”

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