Once, in a land right under our noses yet as far from normal as the Earth from the Sun, there was a wood. It was not a pretty wood - often gloomy and shadowy, with trees pressing and rubbing most sinisterly against each other. It was, in fact, a particularly ugly forest - thus, the name coined for that particular swath of trees was wholly appropriate; Tulgey Woods.
There were, however, pockets of beauty to behold, even in such dense, dark, deceitful, deciduous drudgery. One such pocket - a glade of superbly soft and neatly trimmed grass - lay just to the outside of the tangled heart of the woods. This glade, a haven for fireflies and rocking-horse flies and bread-and-butterflies of all sorts, was the eternal location of one of the magical land's most enduring traditions - the Tea Party.
A long table of fine proportions was rooted in the exact center of the dew-lapped lawn, once dressed with care in the whitest of table-clothes, now entombed with a dusty, yellowing shroud of linen. Elaborately designed and well-chipped china pieces - teacups and teapots and saucers and cake stands, none of which matched the other - littered the pitted table top like so many offertories in the tombs of Pharaohs. Heaped in each was nothing more than sand and soil - what once may have been a slice of Battenburg was now no more than compost.
Chairs of every dimension and style lined the table - goose-down stuffed and bare of back alike - yet none were occupied. At least, none were occupied by the living. In one seat laid the thin, shivery, bony remains of long, floppy ears stuck between gigantic buck-teeth. Another seat told a far more intriguing tale - a long, steely hat-pin driven deep in the sinus gap of a skull with an impossibly wide jaw and teeth like knife blades. Small, rodent-like finger-segments were thrust defiantly between those wicked teeth, stained a dark, ominous maroon.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat..."
However, despite all appearances to the contrary, this glade was not the mausoleum of the dead. No, those pitiful remains of the Tea Party's last guests were not the ones honored in the glade.
"How I wonder what you're at..."
For at the head of the table - in a large, velveteen arm-chair that blocked Time's relentless assault as surely as a medieval castle - sat the Tea Party's permanent host and the true occupant of this formerly saccharine sarcophagus.
"Up above the world so high..."
The person looked a bit diminutive on the throne-like seat, the face buried under wreaths of dirt-coated auburn-red hair that curled and waved in on itself. The woolen frock coat was a deep gray under countless layers of dust and mildew. Enormous, booted feet kicked the bottom of the chair in a slow, idle rhythm, like the heartbeat of one of the sea's biggest inhabitants. The withered calves above the shoes led to knees that were round and heavily dimpled, though grime made the impressions difficult to see. The knees led to bony thighs, half-hidden in the moth-eaten ruin of a woolen, plaid kilt.
"Like a tea tray in the sky..."
The once melodious, lisping voice of the host was now a raspy, grated shadow of itself as clawed hands - for the finger-nails had not been cut in ever so long - stroked a crumpled, moldy, burgundy top hat, its formerly gay and hearty rose sash now a tattered sheath of dirty, flesh-tinged satin.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat..."
The hat, before a natty creation of its owner's clan as well as a convenient, portable needle and hat pin-cushion, was solely decorated with a torn label. What once had read 10/6 now read 0/6.
"How I wonder where you're at..."
For indeed, in this magical, underworld forest hollow - this Underlandian glade - sat the once proud, once glad, once very, very, mad Hatter. Tarrant Hightopp - the host and permanent participant of Underland's perpetual tea party. A man forgotten by Time, his friends, his Queen, and most importantly, his heart.
Death, well-covered in his signature cloak and using his massive scythe as a capable walking stick, paused as he took in the tableau surrounding his last, most obstinate customer in all of Underland. The White Queen had warned him that the 'Hatta' - who's clan he had once led en masse to the afterlife (not personally, mind you, but as his personality had now joined with that of Mors, the difference was hardly distinguishable) - was not quite right. In fact, she had even suggested that his visit would do the man some good. Personally, he had never found his presence to be of any help to those already wandering so deeply in their own minds.
"Ah kin hear ye quite clearlae, sir. Ye may as well approach tha' table 'n' leh mae ken ye."
The red-hooded head rose minutely, allowing Death to glimpse a pair of burnt-orange lights twinkling from the tangled briar-bush of hair, as well as the flash of a gap-toothed, broken grin. Apparently the Mad Hatter was not as far gone as many had thought. Death found that a bit reassuring - he didn't have an issue dealing with eccentrics, but outright insanity was a bit more...pathetic, really.
"Naughtae, hat-guddler! Alice will bae wantin' tha' scone wheninsoe'er she returns, Ah wager. Thackery, laddie, move down a wee bit fer our guest."
Tarrant Hightopp, a man who honored his promises though he be destroyed both mentally and physically, barely moved himself as his first guest in next-kin-to-never walked slowly and stately up the length of the table. Death peered inquisitively at the chair on the Hatter's right side, raising one pale, bony eye-socket ridge in the process.
Malevolence oozed from the hair-shaded figure, almost palpable in its thickness and vehemence. Death bowed slightly in apology and slowly marched behind his host's throne to the opposing chair. With a flourish of his abysmal cape, he was soon seated in a rotting, rough-hewn oak chair. Gently - least he inadvertent reap his host's soul before he was through talking - the entity propped his namesake weapon between his own chair and that containing the remains of the Dormouse and Cheshire. He had cleanly taken care of those two at least a decade ago, so death was no longer an evil to befall them.
"Ah, t'is ye, t'is it? Ah reckon'd tha' ye'd be afear'd o' mae from tha' las' time ye came a-blitherin' yer nonsense, Sir Death," Tarrant began as he carefully resumed caressing the teapot. It was, after all, the very vessel in which a very small and skittery Alice-girl once hid from the villainous Knave of Hearts.
Death sniffed superciliously as he crossed his skeletal legs.
"I most certainly was not 'afear'd' as you so quaintly put it. Merely surprised that a soul would be so infantile as to possess their own lifeless corpse and chair just to avoid the afterlife."
The Hatter's shoulders made a small, creaking shrug while his head rolled deprecatingly to one side.
"I will concede, however, that it was far better than the temper tantrum tangent with the claymore. Have you still got that dreadful knife, by the by?"
Tarrant chuckled - a horrifically grating, chalk-on-slate sound - as he wearily flung his foot forward and up into the underside of the table. The resounding clanking and clattering echoed through the glade as the rust-pitted broadsword of his clan fell to the ground. Death sighed, then smirked in a conspiratorial manner
"Yes, I'd rather thought that you might not have let go of it. Typical Outlander, aren't you?"
The auburn-headed ghoul merely shrugged and let the faint light of evening glint off of his mercury-stained teeth.
"E'en if'n 'twere a Jabberwocky, mae clan 'tweren't ne'er eager fer thine visits. Ye cannot blame them 'r me fer fightin' yer untimeliness tooth'n'nail as always."
"Indeed. That appears to be the excuse of every one of you Hightopps," Death sighed again, weariness of untold ages seeping out into the nigh-night air. "I say, do you actually happen to have a decent cup of tea lying about somewhere? You may be an unreasonable git, but you do happen to brew the very best Darjeeling I've ever enjoyed."
There was a long, considerate pause as Tarrant blinked his weathered eyelids slowly. With halting motions, he gripped the once-pretty china teapot in one hand as he raised the other, skin almost tangibly shrieking in defiance of the act. He hesitantly rubbed his second finger and thumb together, as if testing the faint strength remaining in the thin, leathery flesh over his bones, then snapped them once, briskly.
A steaming pot and clean cup appeared in front of Death, along with a small pot of fresh cream and a bowl of good, clean Muscovado sugar.
"At least you have gotten conjuring down pat," the Grim Reaper stated with faint approval as he greedily prepared himself a cup of the well-brewed tea. "Have you mastered the other stuff? Telekinesis, teleportation and the like?"
The last of the Hightopps - living or otherwise - gave a slow, deep nod as Death took a delighted sip of his beverage, precisely prepared with two spoonfuls of sugar and two dollops of cream. The Outlander's brittle lips creaked in a sardonic smirk. The Alice had always taken her tea with two spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of cream. Furthermore, the tea was always Earl Gray - oh, Alice had a rather cosmopolitan tongue when she wished, but in the end, a smoothly blended Earl Gray was her utmost favorite.
"Oh yes, that is very good. Now then, Hatter, I believe it is time for you to pack up this little party and come with me. We may have to hurry a bit once I've finished this cuppa."
Tarrant Hightopp deigned to raise his long-bowed head completely, finally revealing his sunken, gray-hued face, with the large, black diamonds painted around his burning embers for eyes. His eyebrows were now quite past bushy and well into monstrous, looking like teacup Shih Tzus below his forehead.
"Has it happened then?" the Mad Hatter croaked, his face breaking into a small, hopeful smile. The hint of a lisp was in his voice. Death noticed and could not help but smile a bit in return - though the hellish face made the faint emotion wither into something a bit twisted and cruel. The dark-shrouded entity set his empty cup down and took hold of Tarrant's hand, helping him to rise after so many ages of solitude and stillness.
"Yes, Outlander Tarrant Hightopp. I have it on fine authority that Alice Kingsleigh's soul has finally been reborn. Prepare yourself. We shall be going to the Waiting Room shortly - we must not dally, or else young Alice may be an old maid once again by the time The Powers That Be have finished with the paperwork. Remember, they are still rather put out with you for flattering and hatting your way out of the afterlife in the first place, young poltergeist."
"But surely after all your hard work, Asc-"
A flickering, pinpoint glare of the palest, iciest blue and a slender forelock of red-gold hair freed themselves from the all-consuming darkness of the cape. Tarrant looked suitably chastened.
"- Death, I mean - Surely all of your hard work and sacrifice can allow you one little mishap? You are still new on the job, are you not?"
The current shape of Death - for a mere century or so - smirked bitterly before turning away from his latest charge. He did not need to be reminded of his own past - it was done, for good or for ill. All that was left to him was his ever-spanning career as the Usher of the Mortal Coil and the vagueness of a hardly-fulfilled emotion. An unfinished task that he barely grazed once a year, thus could only vaguely address through his vicarious efforts with the ghost at hand.
"I have only been working for one hundred years, you know, Hatter Hightopp. Only as long as Alice..."
Tarrant held his clawed, thimble-less hand up. There was no need for the men to go back through the unpleasant memories, but alas, it was too late. Before his fiery eyes, he saw once more the day of Alice's final fairfarren. He saw Time come and abandon him once more. He witnessed again the sky as it blackened and wept, as Time itself disappeared and all began to be curtained gray with grief.
"...Bit too soon for me to revisit those memories, is it, old boy?" Death continued rather conversationally, despite the white-knuckled grip on his scythe. An extended examination of the situation allowed Tarrant to realize that he had -somehow - gotten his hand wrapped around the hilt of his claymore and, in an upward motion that would have split a normal person or Underlandian in half, sliced the air in front of the Death Angel. Or, at any rate, he had obviously tried to - the Grim Reaper's wielder, however, was having none of that. The Mad Hatter, shame-faced and mildly disgusted with his unconscious aggression, lowered his arm sheepishly.
"Quite alright," Death assured him as he regained a good grip on the poltergeist's upper arm - a slightly perverse mirroring of a Victorian couple walking out together. Staring back into the heart of the woods, Death had to remind himself once again that he was dealing with a man - and spirit - that had long been battling insanity. With a momentary pause to improve his access to the annals of information made available to all manifestations of the Angel of Death - truly, he had yet to get used to psychic 'benefits' of his new position - the entity turned the Hatter in the direction of Witzend.
"Come - let us walk this way while I gather the energies required. Also, I feel that you may want to say...goodbye to them."
Patting the knobby knuckles gently, Tarrant Hightopp began to shuffle along with his companion. Mortality personified was far friendlier than most could - or would - ever understand.
The trees waxed and waned around the two phantasma; almost in the blink of an eye - or perhaps in the rolling over of a millennia - they neared the desolate ruins of the Hightopp clan's former village. The Hatter could almost feel the electrically charged spew of the long-slain Jabberwocky; he could taste the burned, scorching ooze of ozone and hear the screams of his long-lost clansmen. Most important of all, he could see the faint, wispy outlines of his Muw'r and Faw'r, of his Sis and his cousins a-plenty. The faces were tragically wounded, but still welcoming, arms wide-open in beckoning stances. Stepping away from Death's skeletal hand, the last of the Hightopps stepped into the long-benighted clearing, his own arms out-stretched like a bird eager to take flight. With one last glance at the Grim Reaper's bearer, he smiled serenely before turning his head away from the inevitable.
"Fairfarren...one and all. Though Ah believe that in my case, 'twill soon become a matter of sayin' hello."
The Mad Hatter felt naught as the massive scythe split him from stem to stern, then wrenched his soul-manifest from the ruins of his body with a flick of Death's bony wrists. Around his twice-dead corpse, Underland was slowly swallowed in a gray fog, tinged with the color of The Alice's eyes.