Madness Solver (a Free fantasy steampunk novel)

Chapter 1: Madnes Hatter

The air felt damp against his cheeks as he watched the last shovels of dirt fall to cover Rose’s grave.

Madnes hadn’t known Auntie Rose that well. She’d been cheerful, had a smile as bright as sunbeams, and was always busy doing something, from what he could remember of the few times she visited his family. But that was all.

The pastor spoke a few final words, and then the funeral gathering dispersed. People drifted off, back to their cars.

“So young…she was so young,” Madnes heard an older woman say as she wiped a handkerchief.

“I know. I know.” His uncle comforted the woman with an arm, letting her lean on him as they departed across the cemetery grass.

A hand rested on Madnes’s back, and he glanced up at his mother’s drying eyes. “Mom, why did she die?” he asked. It was a question no one seemed to have a clear answer for.

Mom brushed his bangs back, smoothing out the frizz, her gaze distant and unfocused. “Death isn’t something for you to worry about, little hat. You’re much younger than she was,” she told him.

Madnes itched his head. “That’s not why I asked. I just want to know what she died from,” he mumbled.

Mom’s arm steered him and they began walking away. Dad followed behind.

Madness glanced back over his shoulder at the now lonely plot of upturned soil, the single black alder beside it bending its branches from a sudden breeze. A tabby cat strode past, pausing at the tree. Standing up on hind legs, it bowed its head.

Was that a vest and hat the cat had on?

Madnes blinked, and looked again.

But the cat was gone…

 

One year later

Madnes pedaled his bike along the curved walk that overlooked a stretch of beach, the sea just beyond shimmering from the late day’s golden sun. A gust of wind brushed his red hair back and threatened to take off his top hat—he readjusted the goggles strapped around the base.

Madnes Hatter’s violet gaze lingered on the sunset-streaked clouds, wishing he could melt into them and leave this island behind. The road and sidewalk carried onward, past a small two-story building that read: Designer Hats & Accessories. Every available window displayed fantastic and unrealistic pieces of headware, but the biggest draw of attention of all was the massive maroon top hat perched on the shop’s roof and tilted to one side. The roof was even curved a bit to resemble a scalp.

‘Why didn’t they just build the shop out of a giant mannequin’s head?’ Madnes thought sarcastically. His parents loved standing out as much as he hated standing out. The bike turned into the pebbled driveway. Flipping the break on, Madnes hopped off. The door’s bell jingled when he stepped inside.

“You’re late, little hat.” Mom glanced his way from inspecting a green feathered hat she held up.

Madnes grunted, “Hmph.”

“Did book club run late?”

“Hmph.”

“Not very talkative today, I see.”

He took out a sandwich from the fridge and headed for the backyard to eat in solitary peace.

His parents put all their time and energy into running the designer hat shop. Their home was up on the second floor, which meant work was practically a 24/7 schedule.

He tossed his satchel on a chair outside and sat down, settling his teeth into the sandwich. An airship hummed on a journey across the sky, the balloon of its upper half reflecting sunrays. Throughout the city, trails of steam rose above the rooftops like foggy tendrils—the result of steam-powered electricity.

He watched a few of the trails drift idly up. The island of Okinala had rebuilt itself with the use of steam, pipes and gears, ever since the Solar Storm Wipeout that hit Earth, long before Madnes was born.

He flicked off his top hat, letting it fall into his lap. Hats…he wanted more than a future of making hats. He didn’t know what sort of future, but something, anything different from Okinala’s daily never-ending routine. Something that would add spice to his boring.

But tomorrow came, as tomorrows often do, and another day of school passed for Madnes. He carried his satchel down the bustling hallway.

“What should I do?” Harrey asked in desperation. He grabbed Madnes by the collar, shaking him frantically. “What should I do?!”

“Stop wrinkling my shirt would be a start,” said Madnes.

His friend released him only to rake his hands through his own hair, yanking at it like a crazed rabbit. “She refused me! The love of my life refused me.” Harrey moaned. “She’s killed me, her words a dagger through my heart. And now I’m bleeding internally, soon to die…”

Madnes huffed and looked away. “Can I go now?”

“You’re so callous! Have a little sympathy for your dying friend, here.”

“Harrey. You do this every time a girl refuses to go out with you. Give up, and do your homework for once.”

“Nooo~! Heartless. You’re heartless!”

Madnes exited the school doors, the atmosphere shifting from dim to bright daylight, leaving Harrey March to wallow in his temporary misery. Madnes had better things to do with the rest of his day than listen to Harrey’s whining and moping.

A swish of long blonde hair caught Madnes’s eye: waiting several paces ahead, Alice turned when she heard the door and saw them. “Is he moping again?” she asked around a lollipop, indicating Harrey.

Madnes nodded, “And for the same typical reason.”

She fell into step with him, both leaving Harrey behind as he dragged his feet with the speed of a depressed snail.

Alice wasn’t tall, but her eyes like large pools of sea-green had a way of captivating people. She wore the female version of the school’s uniform, and a matching green ribbon in her overly thick hair.

Alice was odd in her own way, but not nearly as bothersome as Harrey could be. In fact, he quite liked her company. Together they walked from school, following the sidewalk as it led past a bustling street of steamcars and Victorian houses on one side, and the open sea coast on the other.

Alice glanced sidelong up at him. “You have a bored look on your face,” she said.

“I am bored.”

“Every day you look like that.”

“Every day I’m bored.”

“Oh?” Her head tilted, blonde tresses dangling over her shoulders. “Is this world too boring for you, now?”

He gazed ahead. “It’s always the same. Same city, same people, same problems, same future of hat-making waiting ahead of me…it gets old.”

“Hmm, a land without wonder and hope is a boring place, indeed. Okinala has become that,” she said.

Madnes turned his head to look at her. She flashed him a mysterious smile and trotted away. Her house was down the nearby street. She waved the lollipop as she left, and he lazily waved back. Continuing onward, he tilted his hat back to watch the sky and the blue shifting waters as they struck the rocky shore.

After a while, as the city became obscured by trees and a small park on his left, he paused and rested his elbows on the stone railing. “A land without wonder…” he thought out loud. “I need a real wonderland then, is that it? Ha, how great it’d be to find such a place.”

Seagulls cried overhead. He closed his eyes against a warm gust of air. “I want a wonderland…” he whispered.

“Help!” came a cry, followed by a loud splash.

Madnes hurried to look over the rail. Below, where the sea came close up to the seawall cliff, a hat bobbed in the water. Someone had fallen in!

Madnes hoisted himself over the rail, finding footholds in the slope of rock that led down to the sea. He  scrambled down a bit, then jumped—landing in the water. He splashed about, looking every which way. Finding nothing but the hat, he took a breath and dived, forcing his eyes open to the saltiness. Even then, there was nothing, no one.

He surfaced and climbed back up onto the rocky bank, panting. After a while, he managed to climb himself back over the rail, his palms scraped up with the effort.

“A heart that is willing to save others at your own expense. You’ve passed the test!” spoke a voice.

Madnes’s eyes popped open. He nervously looked about, but no human was in sight.

A pair of paws suddenly smacked him in the face, pressing on his eyelids, and Madnes stumbled back, swatting the attacker away. He clutched at his aching eyeballs. “Ouch! What the—?”

He blinked rapidly. Before him on the railing sat a gray tabby cat. It didn’t seem any different than your average tabby, except its fluffy features had been neatly smoothed. And it wore a suit and cravat on the upper half of its body.

Madnes watched in amazement and horror as the tabby rose to stand on hind legs, bowed with a flourishing paw in greeting, and flashed a far too-big smile at him. “Your vision has been awoken, Madnes Hatter,” said the cat. “I’ve followed you around these many years, waiting for the opportune time when you would be ready. It is a heavy responsibility that lies before you.”

“W-w-what,” Madnes stuttered, unable to wrap his mind around the absurdity before him. “Talking cat? Responsibility? Awakened? What crazy dream am I having.” He slapped the sides of his face in hopes of waking up.

The cat tisked, “Tut-tut, it’s not a dream at all. You’ve seen me before.”

Madnes thought. The funeral, Auntie Rose, the strange tabby by the grave…

“This gift was granted to the Hatter family to carry, long ago. And starting today, it’s your turn,” the tabby said.

“What gift?”

Paws suddenly grabbed and turned Madnes’s head, so that he was facing the park and playground not far behind him. It looked every bit a normal playground, just as it always did every day he passed by, but…something was off.

Where rocks littered the playground border, huge red-and-purple mushrooms grew, large enough to sit on. A strange bird with a head shaped like a hammer squawked and dove past a child—the child stared about, as if wondering what had stirred the air, but couldn’t actually see anything.

“There’s never been a bird like that in Okinala before!” Madnes exclaimed.

As he continued to watch, a cluster of bananas ran in a waddling stride across the lawn, wearing little headbands.

“Running…bananas?”

“Ninja bananas, to be precise,” the cat corrected.

Madnes rubbed at his eyes, making them water.

“It won’t go away, Madnes. What you’re seeing are lifeforms from another world, Wonderland, as its portals link to Earth, here in Okinala,” the cat explained. “My name is Cheshire, by the way. And I’m here to train you to become the next Madness Solver!”

Madnes turned his head slowly toward the cat. “The…what?”

“Madness Solver.” Cheshire shrugged as if it were obvious. “The person who works to keep the balance between worlds.”

Cheshire waited, but only confusion and revulsion that a cat was talking crossed Madnes’s features.

“You now see things no one else here can,” Cheshire continued. “Those are mushrooms back in Wonderland, but when in your world, they appear as rocks. The ninja bananas appear like regular bananas to anyone else, but you can see their true form. Only you and those of Wonderland see true forms.” Cheshire’s paws gestured. “It’s common logic that when two worlds collide there are bound to be problems and conflicts. And it’s now your job to solve them before anybody gets hurt.” A paw rubbed his whiskered chin. “To put it another way, you’re the Wonderland peacekeeper. That’s who the Madness Solver is, and what you’ll do.”

“Oh,” was all Madnes could manage to say. He stared at the tabby for one drawn out second, then bolted in the opposite direction—running as fast as his feet could carry him. “No thank you, I don’t need a job that badly!” he shouted over his shoulder.

The farther Madnes ran, the more strange sights he came across. Impossible things and creatures that made no sense. And suddenly, Okinala was no longer boring. It was crazy.

And the future no longer set in stone.

Welcome to Okinala, the island where worlds meet…

NEXT CHAPTER

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