CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
Hatter drew his sword and faced the Queen's army. He'd known for a long time this fight was coming, but now that the day was here, he felt no anger for what the Queen had done, just a soul-draining sadness.
It felt wrong to need a weapon in the land he'd created. At the start, he'd only had to imagine what he wanted to happen, and it did.
The twins stood to his left, daggers in their hands. Harlan held no weapons, well, he was a weapon. It was only a question of who was actually wielding him.
Dressed in a red gown, skirt cut high in the front to reveal red boots and leggings, the Queen strolled after her army, then among their neat lines. He remembered when she wore white.
Alix slipped her fingers around her stun gun and snapped her baton out to its full length as she took a place to Hatter's right. He was glad he'd given her things back. It might have been a good idea to give her a sword. He had two extras.
The two sides glared at each other.
"Off with their heads!" The Queen broke the stalemate, setting her soldiers into motion.
Hatter headed straight for the Queen, ignoring everything else. She was the key. If he could take her out of the fight, her men would fold. He had to break off his planned attack when three of her men surrounded him.
They managed to keep him from the Queen, but Alix sprinted past and swung her baton. The Queen ducked, but not quite far enough. The baton struck her tall, jeweled crown and tore her wig askew, revealing blonde hair.
With blonde hair rather than dark, and blue eyes, the Queen could have been a looking glass reflection of Alix. Hatter caught his breath as he blocked a sword meant to skewer him. He'd always known they'd look alike, but they could have been twins.
The soldiers broke off their attack on him and went after Alix. Hatter stabbed one in the thigh, slashed another across the back, and tackled the third. Jumping to his feet, Hatter leapt over sprawled bodies to get to Alix's side.
"It was you." Alix stood rooted in place. "You're the first Little. The first Alice. You broke Hatter's mind!"
Not completely accurate, but close enough. Hatter diverted a striking blade to stab the ground and kicked the soldier in the chest. A second sword sliced through his sleeve.
The Queen turned an icy stare on her. "My name is Eris! How many times do I have to say it?"
"You're why Liddle girls are kidnapped. You're killing Hatter and Wonderland!"
Terror filled screams filled the air as Harlan claimed his victims. The twins worked together like only fighters who had fought hundreds of battles together could. They were too far away to help with the Queen.
Eris tossed her wig to the ground and advanced on Alix. "Not the land. Just Hatter. When he's dead, I'll have enough magic to rule this land myself and make it however I like."
Dismissing Alix, Eris turned her attention to Hatter and attacked. She didn't do her own fighting much anymore, but she hadn't lost any of her skill. Their swords clashed as another soldier struck out at Alix, forcing her from his side.
The Queen's men closed in around him again. He blocked a sword, but a fist crashed into his jaw. A boot smashed into his thigh. Sword extended, he whirled to gain some space.
Another boot lashed out, striking his sword hand and sending the blade flying. The soldiers converged on him, bodily taking him to the ground. Hatter curled into himself, trying to protect his head.
The men kicking and punching him grunted and disappeared one by one. The Attendees had come to his rescue.
He nodded his thanks and staggered to his feet.
Disarmed and bleeding from several wounds. Hatter swayed on his feet. He wouldn't last much longer. If only he knew what his magic would do!
"Time's up, Hatter." Eris clasped her leaf pendant in one hand, and slammed the palm of her other hand onto Hatter's chest. "You will pay for what you did to my sisters."
Hatter opened his mouth to scream, but the agony was too sharp. It took his voice and stole his breath.
She'd been stealing the magic of Wonderland for years, but never so directly before. He felt his blood running backwards in his veins, carrying all the magic toward the hand draining him. He pulled at her wrist, but her palm felt melded to him. Even with all his remaining strength, he couldn't dislodge her.
His only satisfaction, and remaining hope, was that he no longer served as the conduit for his own magic. He had to access it just like everyone else.
She drained his physical strength along with his power. He didn't make a sound as he fell to his knees, but Wonderland's magic screamed in an agonized, soul-wrenching wail that rang in his head.
Sword raised, the Queen laughed.
He'd heard people say on the point of death, a whole life flashed before their eyes. He'd never seen that happen any of the other times his lives ended, but maybe it would this time. Maybe he'd finally remember and have a chance to understand before it all ended. The encroaching darkness wasn't a rabbit hole he'd opened, but he fell into it all the same.
Morpheus tugged his green vest into perfect alignment, straightened his matching jacket, and flicked imaginary lint off his black-with-a-green-stripe trousers. He'd seen this type of clothing while he traveled in the dream of a visitor from the west.
It wasn't quite right. There was something missing. What else had he seen? He gave himself a hard look in the mirror as he smoothed his hands down his lapels.
The hat! Morpheus held out a hand and dreamed up a tall, green hat with a wide brim and black band. Settling it on his head, he gave himself an approving nod.
That would give the place some color. Erebus could be so dreary. The Underworld wasn't the liveliest of places, what with all the darkness and death everywhere.
Satisfied with his appearance, Morpheus strolled from his bedroom through doors that opened into a garden. The doors didn't always go into the garden, but when he had plans with his grandmother, they went to her favorite place. Nyx, Goddess of Night, loved her moonlight flowers.
Morpheus moved through the blooms, touching petals gently to add color. He dreamed up a table and two cups of tea. That, he'd discovered in the dream of a traveler from the east. The drink had been bitter at first, but now he could dream it up perfectly sweetened every time. A delicious citrus-y scent filled the air, carried on the steam curling from the teacups.
A trio of screeches disturbed his preparations. The furies were coming again. Why couldn't those women take a hint? Grandmother would have to wait.
Morpheus reached for the nearest dream and pulled himself inside. That was another thing about living in the Underworld. The dreams were lacking in, well, rich dreamy content to work with. Most of the dead didn't dream at all, and those who did, often dreamed of their deaths.
As the dream played out, some battle or another, Morpheus waited for his chance to escape. He needed the dreamer to dream of someone else.
"He was here!"
"His drink is hot."
"He can't have gone far."
The furies' voices carried to him, even hidden in someone else's mind.
Hurry up, dreamer! Frustration and anxiety made Morpheus fidget. He slipped into minds to find dreams, which let him successfully hide from almost anyone searching for him. But the furies were some of the few who could enter minds, too. If he didn't get out quickly, they'd be able to follow him.
Why had they made him such an obsession? No one fixated like the furies.
The edges of the dream wavered. They were coming. He'd used this trick too often. Morpheus seized on the dream of another, and fled to the new hiding place. He flitted from dreamer to dreamer, crossing boundaries and borders until he'd traveled far to the east, and a vast sea spread before him.
It would take a while for the furies to find him, if they could follow him all this way.
He occupied the dream of a woman… no, a ghost, sitting on the seashore. Morpheus stepped out of the dream. Golden sand stretched along the shore into the distance. Little blue waves whispered ashore and retreated. A single mulberry tree stood alone, branches heavy with purple fruit. Its thick brown trunk disappeared into a canopy of green leaves sixty feet overhead.
So many colors! His eyes drank it all in like the most perfectly sweetened vision.
The ghost woman's long black hair blew in a breeze. She had drowned and dreamed of flying. He could help with that.
Kneeling in front of her, he leaned forward, cupped her ghostly face in his hands, and pressed his lips to her forehead. Her body shimmered. Black feathers sprouted all over her skin as she became a crow with red feet and an orange beak. With a cry of jingwei, the bird circled into the sky.
The furies would never think to look into a bird's mind. His trail would disappear.
Morpheus sat on the ground and leaned back against the wide trunk of a tree. Maybe the best place to hide was his own dream. His own land. A sanctuary. Somewhere safe where anyone needing refuge could come.
What would he call it? It would be wondrous. That was it! Wonderland!
He'd have to use all his magic to create an entire new world out of a dream. Something would have to serve as a reservoir and spread the magic throughout the land. He couldn't be everywhere at once.
The tree. It could be the center of everything. Magic would grow in the leaves. Roots would spread wide underground, carrying more magic to the far corners of his new realm. Only, it would be better as a tea tree.
Placing his fingers on the trunk, Morpheus poured his magic into the tree, concentrating on color and imagination, the opposite of dreary Erebus.
Sweat made his scalp itchy under his hat. His hands shook with effort and he gritted his teeth. Through the tree, he felt the roots expand. New branches covered in tea leaves sprouted.
Gem-like rocks, bizarrely formed, exotic jeweled plants, and colorful magical fungi popped out of the ground. The world trembled. He flung his arms around the tree and held on as the earth it stood on rose into the air. Up and up the tree carried him, accompanied by the crow calling jingwei.
What did that even mean? Did the bird think he should know?
When the shaking stopped, Morpheus released the trunk, ventured to the edge of the earth, and peered over. The rocks, fungi, and plants lined the cliff-side and a path to the beach hundreds of feet below.
Hands on hips, Morpheus turned in a circle. All around the new tea tree, an empty grass plain awaited him. A pond reflected the top of the tree. The place could use some color.
He walked back to the tree, picked some mulberries, and tossed them in the air. Where they landed, colorful mushrooms with polka dots or stripes grew from the ground.
First on the agenda, a place to live. A lovely home with a view. The top of the tea tree rustled under a cloud of silvery magic as his thoughts took shape. A ramp began at the base of the trunk and wound upward. Morpheus stepped forward, but paused and lifted his boot before he finished taking his first step.
A little worm wiggled on the wooden boards. The poor thing must have been shaken right out of his home when the tree transformed.
"Sorry about that." Morpheus glanced into the dense leafy canopy. The jingwei bird was somewhere in the tree. This worm would make little more than a snack.
He scooped the tiny creature into his hands and carried it to a nearby green mushroom. It could hide better there. Or… maybe it needed to be bigger. Too big to eat. Wonderland magic swirled through his thoughts. Silver tendrils swarmed the worm and its mushroom.
When the magic finished, Morpheus regarded the result with satisfaction. "That's better. An eight-foot Caterpillar will make a much harder meal."
Things were working out splendidly. He left the creature swaying upright on its perch, and began to climb. What would his new house be like?
Laughter stopped him cold. His body tensed and he debated running. But there was no point. They flew, were invisible when they wanted to be, and moved faster than he could.
The furies had found him.
Three female bodies pressed close to him. Breasts pushed into his back, chest, and arm. Six hands caressed him. Fingers tangled in his hair and drew up his thigh. Lips kissed his cheek. A tongue licked his neck.
Why wouldn't they leave him alone?
Morpheus yanked himself free of their wandering hands and mouths, whirling to face them. "Stop! I've already told you I don't love you." He glanced nervously from one to the next, or at least in the direction he thought they'd be. "I love Eris."
The furies revealed themselves. The triplets wore skimpy red dresses. Their wild manes of red-orange hair stuck out in all directions. Orange feathers tipped with gold shone on their wings. Madness filled their orange eyes. Each carried a silver short sword in her hand.
"If you love one of us," they chorused, "you love all of us." They nodded to each other.
He sighed. He remembered them as girls. Eris' trio of little sisters. Watching them lose their minds over time had saddened him, but there was nothing he could do. His magic didn't work like that. Everyone just left them alone and hoped to not draw their attention.
"Megaera. Tisiphone. Alekto." Sometimes using their names brought them back. Their gazes snapped to him, three pairs of orange eyes momentarily clear. "Listen to me. I love you like sisters, do you understand?"
"You love Eris," they chorused.
"You love us like sisters."
He nodded. Their eyes began to cloud with confusion and insanity again.
"Eris is our sister."
"You love us like sisters."
"We're all sisters."
"So you love us," the three said together and clapped their hands.
There was no arguing with the furies. Their ability to drive others mad had made them insane long ago.
"No." He blew out a breath. "That's… not exactly what I meant."
"Don't worry about that, our love. We can make you mad for us." Six hands pulled at him, drawing him a step toward them.
Mad for us, a trio of voices whispered in his head.
This was worse than he thought. They'd never crossed that line before.
"You don't want to do this. If you hurt me, Eris will be sad. You don't want to hurt your sister, do you?"
"You'll love us like sisters."
If you won't be mad for us, you'll just be mad!
His reality hazed around the edges. Morpheus wrenched himself out of their grasps as questing fingers came perilously close to his crotch. He scrambled for a distraction, or a place to hide, and seized on a dream.
"What is he doing?"
"He's using his magic!"
"Don't let him get away!"
He stumbled over a mushroom, fell onto his ass, and crab-walked away from the furies. Behind him, a series of branches erupted from the ground. They intertwined, forming thick, impenetrable walls. Green leaves sprouted along the brambles.
Using so much magic tired him, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down and take a nap. But he didn't trust the furies. He staggered to his feet and toward the new hedge maze. "Race you to the center!"
Surely he could lose them in the maze. Even he didn't know which way to go. The madness the furies had inflicted on him tried to take over his thoughts. It was tainting the magic he used. He couldn't even be sure the maze had a center to find.
How big was this maze? It stopped being fun ten minutes ago, although so far had remained furies-free, so that was a bonus. How was he supposed to get out of here? Random turns weren't working. Left. He'd just turn left, no matter what.
The center, when he found it, took him by surprise. An expanse of green grass stretched before him as far as he could see.
Unfortunately, he also saw three furious furies. Before he could spin around and flee, they also spotted him. They must have flown over the brambles.
Heaving a sigh, he accepted his fate, and strolled toward them. "I'm pretty sure flying is cheating. That goes against the entire point of having a maze."
They frowned as one.
"We found you."
"We made it to the center."
"Uh. Right." How could he put them off? "So we must have a ceremony."
"Because you won. We must celebrate your victory."
"Oh," they chorused. But they didn't seem convinced.
He dreamed up a round table with four chairs. A crisp white tablecloth floated to cover the wooden table. There. That looked more elegant. He dreamed up four place settings. Teacups. Saucers. Little spoons.
Candles for the centerpiece? No. That seemed too romantic. The furies needed no encouragement. The table looked a bit empty. Some food. He could distract them a bit longer with something to eat. Covered dishes appeared, along with dessert plates added to the settings. The table was full. He made it bigger to add little cakes and biscuits.
That was all he could think to do. Hopefully it was enough. Where was Eris? Please, Eris. Your sisters need you. I need you before something unfortunate occurs.
He waved a hand and offered a half bow. "Would you like some tea?"
The trio exchanged uncertain glances. "That would be lovely." They took their seats, entertained enough to go along with him — at least for now.
As he sat, Megaera pulled her chair close to his so the length of her leg touched his.
Morpheus jumped up. "I'll pour."
He spread white napkins on their laps. He poured tea into cups. He offered milk and sugar. He buttered slices of bread. He splashed brandy over the plum pudding and set it aflame. He served cakes and offered biscuits.
Anything to keep busy and keep out of their reach. But no matter how slowly he moved, he ran out of things to do. With great reluctance, he retook his seat and lifted a slice of buttered bread to his mouth.
He squirmed in his chair as Megaera's palm landed rather too high on his thigh. On his other side, Alekto slid her hand over his abdomen, seeking the button of his trousers.
Their hands were on him again. They whispered in his ears. The words of madness buzzed around his mind
They buzzed like flies.
Flies with his bread and butter.
Bread and butter on the fly!
"Bread-and-butter-fly!" Morpheus jumped up and flung his bread at Megaera. He'd had enough! He opened his mouth to yell, but stared, the words stuck in his throat.
She swiped at the bread, but missed and sent the sugar cubes flying. The bread stuck butter-side-down to her chest and a lump of sugar landed atop her head. Silvery magic caught her in its grip. Her sword fell to the ground. Her body twisted and contorted. Her screeches diminished as she struggled and shrank. Bright orange feathers fell away, leaving bare wings in the shape of bread slices with yellow smears.
He gaped as the bread-and-butter-fly landed on the table in front of him. Her face was much smaller, but still enraged, as she glared. What had he done? He'd only meant to throw the bread as a distraction. Not… not this!
Tisiphone and Alekto flew at him, swords in their hands. "What did you do to our sister?"
He scrambled from the tea table, knocking his chair over, and swiping the discarded sword up to defend himself as he stumbled away.
"Undo it!" Tisiphone slammed her hands down on the table so hard it creaked. Flames spread from her fingers, burning the tablecloth, eating through the wooden tabletop and down the legs. The bread-and-butter-fly squeaked and flew off. Cups, saucers, plates, and the teapot fell to the ground.
The whispering words of madness buzzed louder.
Fire! Dragons breathed fire from their snapping jaws.
"Snap-dragon-fly!" He picked up the dish of plum pudding and flung it at Tisiphone. The sticky slices crumbled into soggy, burning crumbs that rained down on her. Raisins, still on fire, stuck in her hair. Her skin turned a lumpy brown as she transformed. Her bright wings turned green as holly leaves, and a single raisin burned brightly on her head.
He whirled to face Alekto.
Her orange wings flared, and she shrieked her rage, attacking with her sword. Their fight was like a dance. She attacked, and he rocked back. He attacked, and she rocked back.
Back and forth they moved. Back and forth the madness surged. Flies and crazed whispers darted at his eyes and ears.
She was rocking. Rocking. Rocking!
"Rocking-horse-fly!" He dove for the ground, swept a teacup into his hand, and flung the remaining contents at her.
It splashed onto Alekto's chest. She screamed as her hands and feet grew hooves. Her skin darkened and she fell to all fours. Her bones snapped and reformed to the shape of a black horse with orange wings. Two table legs slid over the ground and attached to her left hooves, then her right hooves, and she miniaturized, becoming the tiniest rocking horse.
"Shoo-flies!" He flicked his hand to send them on their way. Morpheus rolled to his back and panted, watching the pink sky overhead. Why had they attacked him? Why did they make him fight?
His mind still didn't feel like his mind. He hadn't stopped the madness. How long he laid there, he didn't know. It could have been a heartbeat or a day. The whispers grew louder and softer, but never ceased. His consciousness drifted until a shadow fell across his face.
"What have you done, Morpheus?"
Eris! She had come for him. He focused on her beautiful face. Sky-blue eyes and long blonde hair. The white robe of her office gleamed like the sun. His heart swelled with love. "You're here."
Eris knelt next to him and brushed a lock of hair off his sweaty forehead. "Unfortunately, I'm here as Vengeance, not your lover."
"Vengeance? For what?"
"My sisters summoned me to right the wrong done to them, or punish the one who wronged them."
He sat up. "They attacked me! They followed me here and tried to make me mad. You know how they are, Eris!"
"I know. I've tried to protect them, but it seems I've just made them worse." Her blue eyes swam with emotion. "But my sisters have been damaged, have they not? Do they deserve to be in the condition they are?"
Well, he hadn't meant for the first transformation to happen. He'd just said the words as they came to mind. Nonsense, he'd assumed. But he hadn't stopped when he knew what he could do. Did they deserve it? They'd definitely deserved something! Why couldn't they have left him alone?
Morpheus stared into her implacable eyes, trying to show all his heartfelt earnestness. "If they hadn't followed me, or had stopped when I asked, I wouldn't have had to defend myself! Should I have let them drive me insane? Let them put their hands on me when I didn't want them to? What if I wish for Vengeance?"
"No, my love." Eris slumped, pressing the heel of her palm to the bridge of her nose. "Undo what you've done to the furies, and we can be together." She held his hand in both of hers. "I can take them far from here. You'll never have to see them again. I promise."
He sighed. "I don't know how. They did something to me. My thoughts are muddled. My magic isn't working like it should."
"So long as the furies are stuck in their current forms, I cannot consider their Vengeance satisfied."
"I won't fight you, if you want my death."
She regarded him with sad eyes. "No, Morpheus. I'm afraid my sisters wouldn't be satisfied with such a quick ending. They've already marked you with madness. They want to see you suffer."
"So you'll draw this out forever?" He pushed her hand away and cradled his head. The whispering wouldn't stop, and tiny voices cackled with cruel laughter.
"No. I am Vengeance, but not unfair. I think ten lifetimes is enough to suffer. You will grow madder with each life. That should make them happy. If you find a way to restore my sisters, we can end this sooner. It's inappropriate for me to love a man I must exact Vengeance from." Eris rose to her feet. "I must go. I cannot abandon my duty."
Morpheus jumped up and hugged her. "This can't be it for us! I love you. Don't leave! I've always loved only you. You are the Queen of my heart."
Silver wisps surrounded Eris. Oh no. What was the magic doing?
"Morpheus! What have you done?" Hands flat on his chest, she shoved him hard.
"I don't know!" His hat flew off as he windmilled his arms to catch his balance. "What have I done?"
"There's madness in your magic! I can feel it."
"Thanks to your sisters!"
"I can't leave! You've trapped me here with you!" Her white robe turned into a floor-length dark scarlet dress, and a crown with a heart-shaped ruby appeared on her head. She drew her arm back and punched him in the face.
Morpheus reeled and fell over backward, one foot stepping on his hat. His head swam and his jaw ached. He reached a hand to her. Eris! But she had such malice in her expression he dropped his entreaty.
He'd never seen such loathing on her face, and it was all directed at him. She whirled away, brought one foot down on his hat, and stormed into the hedge maze.
His thoughts blurred.
Eris had malice.
He had to call her back! He could fix everything if she just gave him a chance. But she didn't like him.
Eris had malice.
Eris was malice.
His tongue felt too big and his words clumsy. The world was going away again, darkness closing in.
Three voices unified in mocking laughter. He couldn't, he wouldn't, call her Malice. He didn't want her to be Malice. But she was no longer Eris.
He closed his eyes and tried to speak. "Alice. Please. Help me."
He opened his eyes to a green sky.
Overhead, a crow with red feet carried a stick in its orange beak. He lay where he was and watched as the black bird flew back and forth, carrying sticks from the tree to the sea and dropping them. Birds didn't often dream, but this one had a big dream of filling the sea with sticks and pebbles.
The idea that the bird could fill the sea was mad.
"Well, you're in the right place, bird. We're all mad here."
He sat up.
His past life was over. He had nine more to go. It was time to begin anew. He picked himself up from the ground and tugged his vest straight. He straightened his jacket and brushed imaginary lint from his trousers.
Something was missing.
His hat. He glanced around and spotted it half-crushed amid the debris of shattered cups and plates.
Retrieving it, he shook it out and summoned some of his magic to repair the damage. The hat became a beret, a fedora, a fez, a bonnet, a pillbox, a bowler, and a nightcap before it settled into the tall hat he preferred.
He should have a new name for his new life.
He'd call himself Hatter.
What else might he forget? Ten lifetimes. That felt like important information.
He dreamed up a notebook and a quill that manifested as a scrap of a price tag and charcoal. He had ten lives, and this was the first. Carefully, he inscribed 10/1 on the tag and tucked it into his hat band so it wouldn't get lost.
The Queen had ten lifetimes to make him suffer.
Hatter had ten chances to save himself and Wonderland.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
Heart breaking, Alix watched Harlan flee into the trees. She chased him, but he disappeared just like before.
He didn't answer or come back to her. Only silence came from the clearing. Alix swallowed hard. Had anyone survived? She re-entered the meadow.
Everything was falling apart. She'd utterly failed everyone.
So many dead and wounded lay scattered around the meadow.
The twins were taken.
Dormouse had been the Cheshire Cat. What had happened to the real Dormouse?
Harlan transforming into… whatever that thing was.
Hatter lay dying. If he wasn't already dead.
Alix rushed to him, knelt at his side, and lifted his head into her lap. "Don't leave me, Hatter."
Sunken black eyes, usually mocking or sparkling with mirth, were now listless as they fixed on her face. His golden skin had a greenish pallor. His chest barely rose and fell.
"Where are you hurt?" She ran her hands and gaze over him. There wasn't any blood. Nothing broken. "What can I do?"
"Almost over now. Stay with me." Hatter's eyes closed.
Hot tears spilled down her cheeks as she stared at the hat he held on his chest. The nine on Hatter's tag faded completely, replaced by a ten in dark, bold strokes of ink.
"I'm almost late. I've had more lives than that Cheshire Cat. Ten instead of nine. Any time one can outdo a cat is an accomplishment to be proud of."
"No. Look. We'll turn your tag over." Alix snatched the stupid paper from the hatband. "Now it says 01/01, so the zeros are just placeholders. We don't need them! So really, we have 1/1, which is just one! You're whole!"
Hatter's lips curved in a lazy smile. "Do you know, when you talk about numbers, you sound quite mad."
"We're all mad here." He didn't believe her. He still thought that old rule applied to him.
He nodded sagely. "All the best ones are."
Alix curled her hands into impotent fists. The solid edges of the pendant pressed into her flesh. Surprised she hadn't dropped the thing in all the craziness, she glanced at her hand.
The pendant. It had to be the key to everything. The Queen had tried so hard to keep it. Mother had always talked about a leaf. Not just that, but…
About turning over a new leaf.
Alix opened her fist and stared at the pendant. Was it new? It was dark green, new to her, and maybe here, that was enough. What did she have to lose? Holding the leaf on her flat palm, she held her breath and extended one finger to touch it.
With a quick motion, she flipped it over.
Faint silver lines formed, running through the dark green leaf. They thickened and sparkled in her palm.
A kettle whistled from atop a nearby tea table. Beside it, a teapot stood next to a single teacup neatly centered in its saucer. None of it had been there moments ago.
"Hatter." Alix shook him.
He didn't respond.
Was she meant to make tea with the leaf? How much tea? Did Hatter need to drink all of it? Alix shifted to gently lay Hatter's head on the ground.
She opened the lid of the teapot, dropped the leaf in, and poured the hot water inside. Better to make it too concentrated than too diluted, wasn't it? After letting it steep, she poured a cup, not surprised when the entire contents of the large teapot fit into the much smaller cup.
The brew smelled of hot apples, and silver swirled within its depths.
Alix knelt, braced Hatter against her chest, then held the cup to his lips. "Have a sip. You'll be all right." He had to be all right. They had to rescue the twins, find Dormouse, and help Harlan. She couldn't do it by herself.
Hatter inhaled deeply and groaned, but pushed the cup away. "No. Give the tea to the tree."
"To the tree?" Alix let out a hysterical giggle. "You're better already. That sounds quite mad."
He smiled weakly. "I'm more myself than I've been in a long time." Hatter gripped Alix's fingers tight. "Give the tea to the tree. It's the Tea Tree."
Alix laughed. "Of course it is." Racing to the tree, she moved around the wide trunk, splashing the contents of the cup over the roots. The last of the tea emptied as she finished her third circuit.
The tree stood there. She glanced over her shoulder. Hatter lay there.
"Nothing's happening," she muttered to the empty teacup. "Why is nothing —"
Wonderland shuddered, sending Alix stumbling. The Tea Tree roots glittered with silver that expanded in a burst. Veins of magic grew, winding up the trunk and through the dessicated ground.
Cracked bark turned golden and mended. Drooping branches lifted, a healthy brown bark replaced the black. Magic sparkled up the trunk, spreading from the roots to the branches, all the way to the top. Buds sprouted along twigs, blooming into leaves and flowers until she couldn't see the Tea House behind the thick foliage.
The grass turned green on one side, bent back like a breeze blew, then turned greener on the other side. Mushrooms, small as teacups and big as tables, in all colors, sprouted from the earth.
When the magic reached Hatter, it burst from the ground to lift and surround him in a silvery bubble. The glimmer became streamers that held Hatter aloft, then dove into him. His body jerked each time magic entered him.
"Hatter!" Alix ran two steps toward him before the magic swept her up in its hold. She flinched as bright streams of magic breezed over her skin, calling to the magic already in her blood.
Party-goers sat up as magic touched them, holding their heads in their hands and groaning.
The magic receded, settling Hatter gently on the ground. One impudent tendril of silver collected his hat and flicked it to land on his chest.
Freed, Alix stumbled a step on her way to him. "Hatter?"
He bolted to sit upright, staggered to his feet, dusted off his clothes, and stared at his hat. With a flourish, he spun it in his hands and placed it on his head, cocking it at a jaunty angle.
He gave the destruction in the clearing a disdainful sniff and snapped his fingers. Broken chairs and tables repaired themselves and stood upright. Immaculate white tablecloths draped the tabletops.
A silver tea service appeared on the nearest table. Steam curled up from the spout of the teapot.
Hatter pulled a round, golden watch from his vest pocket, flipped the top up and examined the face. He twisted a knob on the side and held it to his ear. A rhythmic ticking made him smile beatifically.
Was he still mad? Alix put a hand on his arm. "Hatter, the King's Men kidnapped the twins, and Harlan is losing himself to the darkness in the woods. Dormouse –"
He glanced away from the timepiece and caught her gaze. Alix peered into fathomless black eyes, searching for madness or sanity. She saw clarity, but of what?
Hatter tucked the watch away, stepped to the table and held out a high-backed chair. Silently, he waited for her to sit, sliding her chair in as she did.
Could he not speak? Maybe with all that happened he'd completely lost his mind. Wonderland was restored — shouldn't that mean Hatter had been healed?
Flipping his coattails out of his way, Hatter took his own seat at the head of the table. Lifting the teapot, he inhaled the scented steam and tilted the spout toward her cup.