Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.

The clock went tick tock, resting on the shelf on the warm fireplace.

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.

On the table a discarded deck of cards, randomly placed letters. Pictures of a happy family, a strong and graceful father, a kind and gentle mother, both loving the child that was in the middle.

The child was Alice.

Her father loves –loved- her.

Her mother loves –loved- her.

And she loves –loved- them.

The cat is sleeping, bathing in the warmth from the fireplace. A discarded petroleum light on the floor, and in the bed Alice lay, closed eyes and dreaming.

Let's have a tea party!

Is her arm she holds a bunny, holding it tightly to her chest as she wanders the great lands and unravels mysteries beyond all that a real world could offer.

I've got one! How is a raven like a writing desk?

The cat woke up. It rose to its feet, and stretched its muscles.

Its leg hit the petroleum lamp.

The lamp fell.

None heard the silent sound of glass shattering. None received a warning.

The clear liquid crawled across the carpet and reached the burning fire, locked away in the fireplace.

Freed, it sought what it had so long been denied. Everything.

The flames burned, and the more they destroyed and the more they consumed, the more they burned and consumed even more. An ever repeating circle that can only end when all is ash and none stands, and only then the fire dies, its own victim.

The house was a burning hell, filled with choking smoke and scolding heat. Alice awoke to the screams of her parents and the cracking of wood.

BURN

She rose in her bed, fear already holding her heart. Around her, flames licked her home, BURNing the furniture and walls.

The flames, like demonic tongues from a place where no human being should ever go, danced and sung their song of sweet destruction.

Alice got out of her bed, and looked down the hall.

"Mom? Dad?"

She walked down the corridor of burning walls and furniture, like through a tunnel through hell. From the room that was her parent's bedroom, she could hear shouting.

No, it was screaming.

She heard tortured screams of tortured people, shrieking in pure and seemingly endless agony as fire consumed flesh and they burned alive.

"ALICE!" She ran to the door, her bare feet pounding the carpet. Her arm stretched forward- "SAVE YOURSELF ALICE!" Running, running, running… "GET OUT OF THE HOUSE!"

She reached the door. Alice grabbed the doorknob, and in her maddening panic never noticed how scolding hot it was, how it burned her. Hardly even aware of the death and destruction all around her, she knew-

"AAAAHHHHLIIICEE!"

She knew she had to open the door, because Mother and Father were trapped inside.

With an inhuman strength found only in the desperate and the panicking, she thrust the door open.

What she saw was not meant for human eyes, let alone for those of a child. She saw her loved ones, her beloved mother and adored father beneath a pile of burning wood, and she saw how they had tried to escape, but couldn't, and the fire had killed them slowly.

Mother was naked beneath a coat of ember and fire, her skin, once beautifully white as snow, was now red and black, and coated with blisters and charred places where the flesh had fallen off to reveal now blackened bone. Her face was frozen in that eternal scream of pain and torture, and Alice felt her sanity slip away as she stared into the pits that had once held her mother's eyes, and the way the eyeballs seemed to boil. When combined with the flaming hair and destroyed skin around the mouth, revealing the lower jaw and leaving the tongue to hang outside and bake, the terror and primal fear was incredible.

"…Alice…run…save…must…I…mother…"

To the left was her father, also as charred and barren as the woman he had loved, except he was still alive. It was a horrible sight to watch as he fought for seconds of his life, merely to prolong his pain in order to save a loved one already lost.

"…Save…us…"

And then he died, right there and then, and Alice couldn't help him.

She had lost all she had loved. She had lost the house of merry dreams and happy hours, she had lost the two people she had ever loved.

And there was fire, and there were flames.

Flames.

Burning.

FLAMES.

BURING.

FLAMES BURNING.

FLAMES ARE BURNING FLAMES ARE BURNING FLAMES ARE BURNING THE FLAMES BURN

Alice slept in her bed again.

It was not her bed, nor was it her house, nor were the people who took care of her family, nor did she have her books-

Her adventures

-and her toys.

Her eyes stared at nothing, her mind forever playing the same visions like a broken gramophone.

Flames burning are burning save yourself alice

Let's have a tea party get out of the house

Flames are burning

AAAAAAAAAAALLLLIIIICEEEEE

What is it like to have your world shatter?

To watch helpless as your family burned, unable to help, and to survive?

To know you weren't meant to stay alive.

You should have died Alice

So she ignored the voices and the pain as her fragile little mind rocked and tore at itself. She covered herself with a mental blanket, as a child that fears the night would hide under a bed, thinking he would be safe.

Only a part of her knew that it wouldn't work.

That she couldn't hide forever, because madness will find you. You have-

Nowhere to run nowhere to hide

-no chance of winning when you fight yourself. Because your opponent knows your every move, and sees it before you make it.

You can't-

Play chess that way

-fight that way.

A figure entered young Alice's room. It was The Nurse, Alice knew. She had never seen The Nurse, because she had never been able to control her body long enough to do so.

She knew The Nurse was kind, because The Nurse cared for Alice, and worried about her. Alice was sad she couldn't make The Nurse happy, couldn't awake from her nightmares. She was-

Dead but dreaming

-hopelessly locked away in a cage she had made to protect herself from Everything Else.

The Nurse had brought her something.

"Poor girl…after all these years…"

The Nurse had Mr Bunny.

She bent over and placed it in Alice's arms.

She smiled. It was the most beautiful thing Alice had seen in years.

"Maybe that old rabbit will bring her around."

She stepped outside, and gently closed the door behind her.

For the first time in years, Alice moved other parts of her body than her chest.

She hugged that ragged old doll, and felt it for what it was.

A piece of the Good Times.

It was something that had survived the burning, a bit of her happy days come to rescue her from this hiding place and prison.

Hope.

Hope that all would be well.

Hope that the dreams of hazy terror and misty horrors would pass.

Hope that-

Eden shall again have springtime

Wonderland shall be forever more

-the sun did still shine for her.

And then her hopes shattered, like tainted glass destroyed by crude and cruel hammers. They shattered when Mr Bunny raised his head, and her eyes met his. They burned with despair, as if every single horrible moment was forever fused within them.

The bunny screamed, and the scream that came out of its mouth was a mixture of agonising pain and torture-

Like being burned alive, eh, Alice

-of a being doomed to the most horrible terrors-

you should have died Alice

-And there was a deeper, darker hue in it, a manic laughter riddled with malice and sadistic pleasure that somehow towered over the agonised screams of its victims.

SAVE USALICE

And Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole-

down the spiral of the deeper sun

-deeper and deeper into the darkness, the bottomless abyss.

Slowly, pawns and royals rolled and fell.

52 cards, no more, no less.

Down the rabbit hole fell Alice, and pawns and the Pale Royals, and cards of number 52, and

A clock.

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock went the clock, falling down the rabbit hole.

Tick, tock.

Tick, tock.

"Brain that dreams pure terror

Master came to mend the crack

Unto the world of unleashed madness

Under the rule of the Queen."

Bottom of the hole

…Alice…

She lay on the floor, broken.

…Alice…

Of course, she couldn't really have survived the fall.

…wake up, Alice…

From thin air materialised teeth, sharp and yellow. Shortly after they were followed by a head, and it was followed by the body.

He was the Cheshire Cat.

He was.

His body was thin, and coloured in a strange and sickly green. Obscure and arcane symbols carved into his skin changed with every movement of muscle. His eyes shined.

"Alice, it's time to wake up…"

But of course she wasn't waking up that easily. He had hoped. If she was to save Wonderland, he had hoped she could take some blows.

She's a fragile little girl and you expected her to shrug of THAT?

She will have to go up against things much more lethal than mere gravity.

But maybe she'll be expecting it NEXT TIME.

No point in bickering now.

He had come to the strange habit of talking to himself. It wasn't just because that way he got sensible answers, but he was always around when he needed himself.

And that way, if his companion died, he wouldn't be in a position to cry.

…You still remember…

He didn't have time for memories.

He lifted his paws, and placed them on his chest.

Sacrifices have to be made.

He thrust inward.

And this is not the last one.

There was pain, lots of pain. Pain engulfed him, strangled him, burned and froze him as he ripped a part of his meta-essence, his very soul, straight from his living body.

Pain, overwhelming.

Burning, searing, cutting, shredding.

Paralysed.

But he couldn't give in. If he succumbed to the pain, he'd die. And then Alice would die, and then the Hearts Queen ruled over all. Trying to stay as focused as he could with the agony that was shaking his body and fogging his mind, he managed to seal his wound.

But now wasn't time to celebrate yet. He had to quickly gather the released essence, and fuse it into a Crystal. If he failed, he'd have to bleed again. And he wasn't sure he could survive another try.

He held out his aching paw, and formed a heart in the air. Gripping the earth, trying not to faint, he forced the released energies into the crystal heart. It filled up with the sweet and healing purple dust, and closed with a soft click.

He saw the beautiful crystal heart, floating in the air before him. The way the light broke as it passed through…the way it seemed to shine…so perfect…

He collapsed.

Losing may not be,

My dear exhausted friend.

Out of the corner of the eye he hadn't totally closed he saw a small mouse suddenly run up to him and begin to nibble on his tail. It wasn't so much a pain as it was annoying, but it was a chance.

Slowly, he raised his paw, and then brought it down with fierce speed.

With a splat, the mouse lay smeared all over the general vicinity of his tail, soaking the earth with fresh blood.

And the earth drank.

From its wrecked entrails came forth dust, so purple, so perfect.

Need. Must have. NEED. MUST HAVE.

It danced around him for a brief moment, and then formed a small pyramid.

His heart sang with joy as he consumed it, for he knew he would live to guide Alice.

You/We may live to see this land redeemed.

But now that he lived, one that was more crucial did not.

He took the great shining crystal heart, and taking great care not to let it pass into him, he stuffed it deep into the chest of-

Dead but dreaming

-sleeping Alice.

"Wake up, Alice…Time to wake up…time…"

She awoke, opening her eyes to gaze around the ragged and destroyed land. The hate and malice that had twisted it had not omitted a single inch.

You should never have brought her into this. Look at her! So fragile, so defenceless. Why did you damn her to the sick and disturbing hellhole you live in?

She is the Saviour.

She is a little girl, traumatised and left in a loony house for YEARS! She hardly even saved herself!

The land still stands. She guarded her sanity for years, haunted and hunted by terrors of her own make. The ones that you fear most. She will fight, and she will win. She will win for us all.

Ah, my jewel has awakened.

Bet I can guess the first thing she'll say.

"Uh…Where am I?"

I win!

Slowly, Alice rose from the ground. She squirmed, her neck and back still aching. Then, like a slap across the face, her question answered itself, as her vision cleared, and the blurry shapes that formed her surroundings left and were replaced by a grotesque view of the world around her.

The last time she had seen Wonderland, it had been made of beautiful, rolling hills, the plants and blooming flowers bathing in the warm sunlight from the gentle sun in a clear blue sky. It was so beautiful to the point of being surreal, and that was its special charm, the way the sun made you feel warm but never hot, the clouds never threw any actual shadow, and the air itself seemed to have a joyful happiness woven into its fabric. Time didn't fly when you were having fun, because it was always just right. And the inhabitants were silly, in a good-natured way as they considered their silly actions to be awfully important.

She liked that wonderland.

She didn't like this wonderland.

Where her wonderland had been beautiful, this one was bizarre, a horrific nightmare of swirling chaos, and where there had been a near solid joy in the air, now lay a feeling of dread and a sense of some evil, nameless horror that had turned her wonderland into this perverse parody of beauty.

The sky was a gaping blackness, a dark and cold void above their heads. Shadows swirled in and out of that hateful dark, a gloomy display of the sinister power which had claimed this land.

The Cheshire Cat saw what she was looking at.

"Much has changed since you lived here, my friend. This is no longer your dreamscape."

"But…it's my wonderland."

"No, dear Alice. It is your no more. It was taken from you while you slept."

"Who…who took it?"

"Were it known, we would have long ago taken it again. But no, girl, we know not. Most believe that the Queen of Hearts is the thief of dreams, but I do not."

"Why not? It would be just like her."

"As Wonderland, as we all, so she has suffered. Before I fled her court, she was in an unenviable state. Her body had been as if twisted and turned inside-out and her veins leaked a foul smell."

"So, who could it be?"

"If only I knew, Alice."

There was a pause, in which Alice seemed to ponder the new data. After a brief consideration, she asked:

"How have I come here?"

"The screams of a dying world have summoned you. Wonderland tears at itself, and like a volcano, the rumblings are the sign of inside pressure. Soon, Wonderland will erupt."

"Why is the evil destroying the world?"

"The evil cares not, my dear Alice. And the motives of this evil are difficult to comprehend."

"What do you mean?"

"The evil searches for you."

"Does…it…know I'm here?"

"It should not. It has no way of knowing. But it knows, Alice. And if it wants you, we must find out why."

"It probably wants me because this was once my wonderland."

"Alice, stop thinking of this place as your wonderland. Your wonderland died, and this is the thing that has spawned on its grave. You have no more power than a person born here. You can DIE, Alice."

Die? That was no problem. She could deal with dying. Generally, it was easier than living.

Easier than living, living and remembering…

That was where Alice fainted, and fell to the ground like a bag of bones.

There was The Night, the Night of the Burning. It was an evil night, and her memories were clear. Many a time had she hoped, begged, that the memories would fade away, reducing themselves to a hazy, blurry recollection of inaccurate fear. It never happened. Her memories of it were clear as crystal, and vivid as the flames of the Night of the Burning.

She could remember every detail, as if it had all happened only yesterday. As if it had happened only a second ago. As if it was happening now. She could smell the burning of her mother's fair hair, could see how it seemed like the fire was growing out of her skull, and she could see her eyeballs melt away oh god and the blisters, there were so many blisters, the way her skin just cracked open and the scream oh god make it stop she could remember the screams, so strong, so please make it stop fierce from the pain, and then her gaze would pass over her father, and he was crawling, fighting the pain and the agony and the misery and THE PAIN, THE BURNING PAIN, and he was losing, he would never make it, he was I don't want to remember and she knew, she saw, she was aware that he had lost a leg, and it was under a huge piece of burning wood, and she could see the bone and it looked like he had torn it off? In a frenzy to save his wife, but and I survived how could I survive it was too late, and it had been too late a long time ago, because she was dead, and dead, she was screaming until there was no more air in her lungs, her dead lungs, and there was the horror of blood and fire and death.

Here, her memories ended. The rest was a blur, the way she fought her way out of the house, each flame a demon, screaming, taunting, and dancing their mad dance of destruction. How she collapsed on the soft, green grass, and turned, and saw the house in flames, the song climbing and climbing, a thousand hateful voices screaming in the night, like a chorus of ravaging thunder, and she couldn't resist that song, she had to watch, watch the house go, and the song reached it's climax. The thunders, so hateful, roared and so did she.

They found her the next day, staring at the smoking remains of the bonfire that had once been her home. She had watched it burn all the way into ash.

She opened her eyes, and found the Cheshire Cat looking at her, worried. As mysterious as he was, as hard as he tried to hide his motives and his feelings, sometimes, he slipped. She saw that slip. It crossed his face like a vague shadow, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

It said "I should have never brought into this."

It said "I knew her memories as well as she does. I should have never brought her here."

And she didn't like that, because that suggested she was weak, weak and fragile, a thing of porcelain, made to sit on a shelf and look pretty.

And she knew she wasn't like that. This was her wonderland, no matter what the Cat said. Who…Whatever stole it from her, came from the Night of the Burning. And this was a chance…a chance to strike back at an aeon of injustice, of torture and fear, of longing for the Good Times, and the hateful song.

It was a chance that there would, once again, if only once and never again, be justice.

She knew she would do it.

"Cat, I'll do it."

"What?"

"I'll do it, Cat. I'll show the evil what little princess perfect can do."

"It won't be easy, know that. There shall be-"

"Yes. There shall be bloodshed."

And then she smiled, and it was a nice, kind smile, made to make him fell better, a sort of unspoken don't worry, everything will be fine, just fine but that wasn't all. Somewhere back there, there was another part of Alice, the Cheshire Cat noted. It was smiling as well, but so does a shark before it tears its victim apart. It smiled at the promise of blood.

It was submerged, and Cat hoped it stayed that way. And if it tried anything, he would stop it.

Because he needed Alice as she was.

Because he wanted Alice as she was.

A Matter of Hate

Somewhere else.

No better description exists for the location.

Somewhere else, there is a castle. Its ancient bricks, as ancient as the land itself, as ancient as the mind they infest, were cemented with blood, and it hasn't dried in a millennium. It still drips from the small cracks in the walls, falling into the black nothing below.

The castle has a thousand towers, bending in strange and unnatural ways, moving slightly like trees in the wind. But one is higher than the others, and within there is darkness, and in the darkness there are eyes.

The eyes are a disturbing sight to behold. They are inhumanly large, and devoid of any pupils. They glow a peculiar light-blue, and look like they have been crying for untold ages.

The figure of whatever being these eyes belong to is a mere silhouette, a shadow among shadows. It bends heavily at the back, and budges at certain places, and the arms are inhumanly long and thin, the fingers like claws of a humanoid crocodile.

A door creaked open. The deep blue eyes turned to face it.

A little light entered the room of darkness, but not enough to illuminate the shadowy figure. In the little pool of light stood a rabbit. He was dressed in a red tuxedo, a black tie around his neck, a cylinder hat on his head.

"I'm not late, am I?" spoke the rabbit, a worried look on his face.

"No, you are not." The voice of the blue-eyed thing was deep and hollow; each word resonating for a few moments more after it has been spoken.

"Do you know why I have called you?"

"Yes, my queen…everyone knows it…" The rabbit was almost shaking, nervous from the sight of the queen's body. While the gloom concealed her, the silhouette alone hinted at terrible things, inhuman things.

"So, they've felt her coming, have they? Then they shall feel her death as well."

"My queen…is this truly necessary?"

The blue eyed thing's eyes ceased to glow light blue, and for a fraction of a second became wholly dark, seeming sucking up what little light the room held. Gradually, they returned to their former shining.

"…Listen to me, you pathetic little creature! You are a mere servant. YOU DO NOT QUESTION ME. What you know is mere illusion, guesswork and hearsay. Please, do not tell me you believe all those stories…"

"Of course not, my queen!" the rabbit quickly said, and continued"…although I would hate to see her die…"

This enraged the blue-eyed thing even more.

"LISTEN TO YOURSELF! YOU STILL THINK OF HER AS THE GOOD OLD ALICE! ARE YOU BLIND? Do you not see what our land has turned into, how children are born weird, insane, degenerate? Can you not hear the earth itself choke and lose its breath, almost stinking already as a fresh corpse?

The trouble, you see, with people such as yourself, is that you are born of a dream world, and therefore tend to dream. You fail to see the truth of harsh reality! Even as Wonderland crumbles beneath our very feet, you do nothing, believing blindly in old wives tales of The Saviour, and because of such fairytales, you fail to see Alice as a threat!

Just how short is your memory, Rabbit?"

Rabbit gulped silently. His memory wasn't much good, true, but he could remember the dungeon beneath the castle, and the things they do there. Strangely, even as all things ran out across Wonderland, people still came up with fresh, new ideas for torture.

He certainly didn't plan on visiting that place very soon.

"You are as wise as ever, my queen. Forgive my short-sightedness, and let me be your faithful servant, as I have always been."

The blue-eyed thing calmed down, and began to move around the dark room, strolling up and down. In the way the Queen moved was a certain aspect of inhuman and unwholesome joining of body parts that made his fur stand on end.

"Send out the troops. Have them search the entire land. Do whatever it takes, just BRING ME ALICE!"

"Of course, my queen..."

The rabbit turned, and, trying his best not to start running as he headed for the door. Behind it was the vast maze of stony corridors that penetrated every bit of this castle, and from each stone small drops of blood poured eternally, dripping onto the floor and disappearing between the cracks in the stones. They were lit by torches, hanging from the ceiling, always swinging slightly due to the castle's own unstable existence; they were a disturbing reminder of the rocking motions of the never-still building.

Even as he walked through those corridors, he recalled stories told of this place. None remembered it being built, though many still lived that had seen Wonderland, back in it's days of glory and beauty, and had never known this dreaded place. There had been another castle, but it was not like this one, for as Wonderland, it was slightly silly and yet pretty. Yet, as ancient as this blood-soaked building was, it had seemed not to have aged in the long aeons since the Corruption.

He reached the end of a particularly dark and horrid corridor, and faced a dead end, equipped by a solitary, upside-down heart symbol. He pressed his right paw lightly against it, and waited. Soon, he heard the creaking of hidden machinery in the walls. The dark stones seemed to fade away, and he closed his eyes to slits to prevent himself from seeing what was beyond them. It was an infinite, ghastly green place, like a sort of light mist in which ancient and unholy winds played and danced, and lonely stars shone, nearly choked by the all-enveloping green mist that held them in place. And sometimes, he though he could saw ghostly, white figures in the mist, walking far, far away to places he dared not imagine. He could not make the figures out, but he was sure they were not human, and seemed to be similar to a group of spiders sown together.

As the stones faded and showed him that horrible place, he saw it. It was a metal, crude elevator, rusty and sharp, decorated depressingly with metal wires and clogs and wheels. It slipped through the transparent stones as if they were never there, and stopped before him. He stepped inside, and spoke the command that would make it take him where he wished.

"Down the spiral of the Turned Heart."

The metal, rusty elevator seemed to hear him, and began its descent. While it was moving, he held his eyes firmly shut, for he was in the land of the damnable green mist now, and he didn't want to catch even a glimpse of his surroundings. Sometimes, he felt something cold and whispery brush against him, and a great sense of terror built up in him, and he tried not to scream, for who knew what might hear him and come running?

How long it took him to reach his destination he could not tell, for he had no means of measuring time, nor was he certain that Time truly existed here in the same sense as it did in normal places. When he opened his eyes, he was in another of those murky, blood-damp corridors, and the small torches were swinging from side to side again.

However, the corridor was wider here, and for good reason. He was now nearly at the bottom of the Hearts Castle, and in the one place that could rival his fear of the blue-eyed thing that was the Queen. This was the dungeon, and he could count himself lucky to be on the right side of the bars. The corridor was wide, and you still had to walk perfectly on the middle to avoid nearing the bars of the cells, for the guards of the dungeon were notorious for losing keys and forgetting to feed those imprisoned here. Indeed, they had quite bad hearing and eyesight, for one could beg and plead all one could, and they would turn their heads the other way and wait for you to starve to death, while you sat in your small cell, along with the rats that simply waited for you to sleep so they could nibble on your flesh. Some were even bestowed such mercy that a guard would be sent every week and clean the cell of the shit and piss it had accumulated during the week while its occupant was being beaten into a bloody pulp.

But he would not think of such things. He walked along the faded, once yellow line at the centre of the floor which indicated the safest position to stand and be impossible to be reached by the jailed. He counted the numbers on the cells.

...23...

...25...

...27...

...29!

The person in cell number 29 was asleep, lying naked on a hard, wooden bench. He was old and though he was thin to make his ribs stand out, they were hard to notice under a layer of dirt and other disgusting things. He had a dirty, mangled beard, and smelled like shit on a Monday morning. He was abnormally short; even Rabbit didn't have to look up to see his face.

Rabbit hit the bars of the cage, making them emit a dull, metallic clang. Though it wasn't loud at all, the prisoner was immediately awake, his face already that of one who has already given up and expects nothing but misery in the near future, and nothing at all in the long run. The look of fear lessened slightly when he saw that the person awakening him was not a Card Guard with a vicious look on his face, but the ever-nervous White Rabbit.

"Oh…it's you. Why do you trouble me?"

"I want to talk to you, old one."

The dirty gnome spat, but the spit did not manage to make the cell any dirtier than it already was.

"Talk! You always say that, Rabbit. But you do not want to talk, do you? You want to learn."

"I don't have time for this! Don't you know what has happened?"

"How can I? Do you think the guards fetch me the morning paper?"

Rabbit looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide with fright. He crept closer to the bars and whispered into the ears of the prisoner.

"I've heard that She walks the world again."

"She? Rabbit, perhaps I was wrong to tell you stories from those ancient times. And besides, you have yet to make good your part of the deal."

"How can you not feel anything? She comes! Alice comes! The Chosen One walks the world again!"

The gnome leapt at the bars and closed it's stinking, dirty hands around Rabbit's mouth. Rabbit fell silent instantaneously, half not daring to admit he had talked to the gnome, half not daring to open his mouth and expose it to the filth on the gnome's hands.

"Shhh! Quiet, you fool! Never speak her name again, you hear? We do not know that Alice is the chosen one, nor do we know just who did the choosing. It is best not to meddle in such affairs lest we talk from the same side of the bars."

He released his hold, and Rabbit sprang away, quickly wiping has face with a white handkerchief he produced from a pocket. The stench was making him feel dizzy, and he felt the first echoes of a headache rolling in across the horizon. He peered at the disgusting gnome again.

"You know, I still don't see how you expect me to get you freedom. No-one's ever escaped. Not that people haven't tried, of course…I hear many interesting stories: You know, the ones where the hero dies quite horribly."

"There are many kinds of freedom, Rabbit. You'll know it when you see it."

"More prophesy, old one? And you tell me not to believe in the stories of old men."

"Stories have a time and a place; sadly, this is neither. But I do not spin prophesy, I merely say things. What everything else ends up doing is none of my business."

"Have fun telling things to your walls then, prophet. I've better things to do."

The White Rabbit turned and tried not to break into a run. He did not fancy entering the higher regions of the castle much, for he would have to pass through those damnable corridors again, and he hated the feeling of being followed he always got in dark places. However, his nose was telling him that it did not matter if he saw even the Queen herself unveiled, as long as the stench would be gone. All he wanted now was to exit the castle and reach his own manor and seek escape in the walls of sleep.

The Second Step

The Cheshire Cat was worried. He knew there was no way for Alice's arrival into the world to go unnoticed. Even now, the enemy would be looking for her. The hour grew later with every passing moment, and yet, he dared not take the quickest path. Alice was new to the new Wonderland, and had much to learn, if she was going to survive

conquer

it. The rules had changed, after all.

"So, Cheshire…what way does the Red Queen lie? I wish greatly to return this world to my own image."

"Patience, Alice. We can not go directly to her castle."

"Why not"

"Many things have changed, Alice, but some stay the same. She was a heartless witch before, and a heartless witch she remains. However, the castle no longer bothers to remain still."

"And this means…what"

"It means that the shortest path between two points is not always a straight line."

"Cheshire, you really can't help yourself, can you? How's about us having a normal, understandable conversation for a change"

The Cheshire Cat sighed with an air of a teacher tutoring a exceptionally stupid pupil.

"The Castle will avoid us, even as we strive to get near it."

"So? One wouldn't think sneaking up on a castle would pose much of a challenge."

"Then one would be thinking wrongly." he snapped. "There are things we must do first, not the least of which is getting you acquainted with the new lay of the land. And teaching you to look out for yourself."

"I can fight." Alice said.

"Really? What with?" the Cat smirked. "Your bare hands?"

"Do you think me weak, cat?" Alice asked. There was an edge to her voice, a nasty little echo promising violence.

"No, my dear, merely stupid. Do you suppose the Queen's agents will challenge you to a battle of fisticuffs? They have blades, Alice. Blades that cut and blades that slice, blades for men and blades for mice." he added in a sing-song voice, his grin as big as ever. "You have a strong will, but will alone has never stopped a sword. You need arms, girl, and not just the ones you had on you when you left you mother's womb.