Unhinged Page 7

I jerk against my binds. I’m not sleeping, so this can’t be a dream. I don’t want to go inside that door while I’m awake. I’m still trying to get over the last time.

My lungs draw tight inside me, ravenous, until I have no choice. Going inside is my only way out, my only way to breathe and live. Straining against the bindings on my wrists, I bend my elbows to reach for my chest. With both hands, I snag the key on my necklace, shoving Jeb’s heart locket out of the way. The current pounds my head against the concrete wall. Pain shoots from my temple to my neck.

I sweep my bound legs like a mermaid’s tail in order to reposition myself in front of the door. I thrust the key into the keyhole. With a twist of my wrists, the latch gives and water funnels out. At first I’m too big to breach the opening, but then either the doorway grows or I shrink, because somehow, I fit perfectly.

I ride the waves through the door, lifting my face to gulp air. A hillock stops me, hard enough to knock the air from my lungs. I’m left coughing in the mud, my throat and lungs sore, my wrists and ankles chafed from their struggle against the string of lights.

I flip to my back and kick my legs, trying to loosen my binds. A shadow of large black wings crawls across me, a shield from the storm brewing overhead.

Streaks of neon lightning slash across the sky, casting the landscape in fluorescent hues and releasing an acrid, charred scent. Morpheus’s porcelain complexion—from his smooth face to his toned chest peering out of a half-buttoned shirt—looks as luminous as moonlight beneath the electric flashes.

He towers over me. His impressive height is the only thing he and Jeb have in common. The hem of his black duster whips around his boots. He opens a hand, a lacy cuff slipping out from his jacket.

“Like I’ve been telling you, luv”—his deep accent rolls through my ears—“if you relax, your magic will respond. Or perhaps you’d rather stay tied up. I could place you on a platter for my next banquet. You know my guests prefer their entrees thrashing and raw.”

I cover my burning eyes and groan. Sometimes when I’m upset or nervous, I forget that there’s a trick to my netherling powers. Inhaling through my nose, I think of the sun glistening on the ocean’s lapping waves to calm my heartbeat, then breathe out through my mouth. Within seconds, the light strand relaxes and falls away from me.

I flinch as Morpheus forces me to my feet. Weary from their battle with the water, my legs start to give, but he offers no other assistance. So typical of him, expecting me to stand on my own.

“I really hate you sometimes,” I say, propping myself against a giant leafy stem for support. The daisy surrenders to my weight without a word, triggering a curious twinge in my gut. I can’t imagine why it’s not pushing me off or complaining.

“Sometimes.” Morpheus drops a black velvet cowboy hat over his blue hair. “A few weeks ago it was a definitive always. In a matter of days, you’ll be professing your undying lo—”

“Loathing?” I interrupt.

Smiling provocatively, he adjusts his hat to a cocky angle, and the garland of dead moths across the brim trembles. “Either way, I’m under your skin. Either way, I win.” He taps long, elegant fingers on his red suede pants.

I fight the annoying impulse to return his smile, hyperaware of what his body language does to the darker side of me: how it curls and stretches warily, like a cat basking on a sunny ledge, drawn to the heat but guarded against slipping off.

“You’re not supposed to bring me here in the daytime.” I wring out my soaked skirt’s hem before moving to the tangles on my head. Gusts catch my hair, slapping slimy strands across my neck and face. Goose bumps cover my skin beneath my clothes. I shiver and cross my arms. “And how did you manage it, anyway? There’s only one entrance into Wonderland … you can’t just move the rabbit hole wherever you like. What’s going on?”

Morpheus wraps a wing halfway around me, blocking the wind. His expression teeters between antagonism and amusement. “A magician never gives away his secrets.”

I growl.

“And I don’t recall agreeing to any particular time of day for our meetings,” he continues, unfazed by my grumpiness. “You should be able to visit anytime you please. You have a home here, too, after all.”

“So you keep insisting.” I break our stare before he can draw me into his mesmerizing gaze. I focus instead on the chaos around us. This is the worst I’ve ever seen Wonderland look.

Deep purple clouds scud across the sky like fat, gauzy spiders. They leave dark trails, as if spinning webs in the air. The mud beneath my shoes groans and sputters. Brown bubbles pop and rise. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear something was breathing under there.

Even the wind has found a voice, loud and melancholy, whistling through the zombie-flower forest that once stood as proud as elms. The flowers used to greet me with snarky attitudes and snooty conversation. Now each and every one cowers, bent at the stems, their wilted arms hiding petals that are studded with hundreds of shuttered eyes.

The multi-eyed netherlings have lost their fight … their soul.

Morpheus slides his hands into a pair of slick red gloves. “If you think this is tragic, you should see what’s happening in the heart of Wonderland.”

My own heart sinks. Wonderland used to be so beautiful and alive, garish and creepy though it was. Still, seeing the land crumble shouldn’t affect me so strongly. I’ve witnessed the gradual decay in my dreams over the past few weeks.

Thing is, I’d hoped it was only imaginary. Maybe this is just a dream. But on the chance it’s real and Morpheus is telling the truth, I have to step up. It’s my place.

Problem is, Morpheus rarely tells the truth. And he always has a hidden agenda. Except for one time when he actually performed an unselfish and uncalculated act for me …

My attention wanders back to catch his jaw muscle twitch. A telltale sign that he’s lost in thought. It should bother me that I know so much about his mannerisms. Instead, it bothers me that I like knowing.

His familiarity is unavoidable. Up until I was five, he visited my dreams as an innocent child every night. When a netherling takes on a child’s form in such a way, their mind becomes childlike, too. So we practically grew up together. After I saw him again last summer, we parted ways for a while. He gave me the space I requested. But now he’s taken up residence in my REM once more. He’s here every time Jeb is gone, keeping me company—even though I don’t ask him to.

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