Splintered Page 39

I glare at him. “I know what I saw.”

He straightens his sleeve cuffs. “I used reflections to visit you. The gazing globe at the asylum, store mirrors . . . the mirrors in your home. Through them, I projected an illusion, but I couldn’t fully materialize because the portals are obstructed. Your mind was my stage. No one else could see or hear or feel me. Only you. And you did feel me, didn’t you, luv?”

Thinking of the way his phantom breath tickled my neck as he hummed—hot and teasing—leaves me rattled to the bone. I lift my chin, a lame attempt to hide his effect on me. “There was magic . . . with my mom’s braid. It moved, locked my fingers around her throat. That was you.”

He buffs his fingernails on his lapel. “It was magic, I’ll admit. Misguided magic. And not mine.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re not yet ready for me to answer that.”

Tired of his manipulations, I shove him off balance and sprint for the opening in the trees where the sprites disappeared, nearly tripping over my heels in my desperation to find Jeb. There’s a harsh flapping overhead; then Morpheus drops into my path. I skid to a stop.

He crouches with wings spread parallel to the ground and stares up at me intently, like a giant bird of prey—dark and dangerous. I’m familiar with this side of him . . . his temperamental black moods. There will be no reasoning with him unless I can get the upper hand.

He stands and catches my shoulders before I can bolt again.

“Enough games,” he says. “It’s time you fulfill your destiny. I did not spend the first third of your life training you in vain. Alice has left ripples in our world that only you can smooth. I’ve waited over seventy-five years for this day to come . . . made too many sacrifices to watch it all fall to rot. You fix what she broke, and it will open the way for you to break the curse and get back home. Until then, I make the rules.”

Alice has left ripples in our world that only you can smooth. The zombie flowers said something like that, too. That only a descendant of Alice could fix this. And the octobenus insisted that the Wise One—Morpheus—was desperate for my help. Desperate.

He’s the one who prompted me to keep the sponge, the one who’s been teaching me about Wonderland for years. Why? He must have some kind of personal stake in this.

“You need me.” I raise my voice, taking a chance on my assumption. “It’s not that my ancestors couldn’t figure out the way here. They didn’t want to come. It has to be by choice. You can’t force them; otherwise, you would’ve abducted one and already fixed this mess. I’m the first who’s ever been willing to come this far, and I don’t have to do anything you ask. So what if I’m stuck here? I’ve always been an outcast. I’ve already learned to live with it. Alison . . . she’ll survive, like she always has.”

Morpheus doesn’t have to know the truth: that Alison’s quality of life teeters on my success. I’m seeing this bluff through to the end.

“This is your one chance.” I rest my hands on my waist. “Screw with me, and you could end up waiting another seventy-five years.”

A strange expression drifts over my childhood companion’s face. If not for the mask, I might get a better read, but it seems like there might be a glint of pride.

His fingers grow light on my shoulders.“What are your demands?”

“Jeb and I will be reunited, today. You’ll call off your sprites and leave his memories intact. He’ll be treated as your equal, not your pawn. And I want clarity . . . how you can claim to be Alison’s friend, if you and I grew up together; how you knew my ancestors if you’re my age. And what your stake in this is.”

He releases me from his grasp. “That’s all you ask?”

Recounting what the octobenus said about vows among the netherlings—a fact verified by the promise Morpheus kept to Alison not to contact me—I add one thing more. “I want your word . . . an oath.”

“Well, drat.” Sighing, he holds a palm over his chest as if pledging allegiance. “I vow on my life-magic not to send away or harm your precious boyfriend as long as he’s loyal to you and your worthy cause. Although I reserve the right to antagonize him at every given opportunity. Oh, and I will happily explain all your questions.” He bows then—every bit the gentleman.

Leather suit and crumpled mask, that morbidly sexy hat. He thinks he’s a rock star. Maybe he is one in this place. But he’s given his word and he has to uphold it, or his wings will shrivel up and he’ll lose all his mojo.

Straightening, he takes a full step forward so his boot tips touch mine. “There. Since that unpleasantness is out of the way, shall we proceed? Seeing as we’re both grown up now, we have some reacquainting to do.”

I scan the trees. All of the sprites have left. Nerves jump beneath my skin. “Where is everyone?”

“Preparing a celebratory banquet for us at the manor. We have no chaperones. Might as well take advantage.”

Panicked, I take a step back, but his wings curl around me and hold me in place, blotting out everything but him. It’s like we’re sharing a cave.

His skin is almost translucent in the dimmed light. “Time to let me inside, lovely Alyssa.”

Before I can respond, he peels off his mask and drops it to the grass underfoot. What I thought was makeup around his eyes are actually permanent markings—like tattoos, but inborn. They’re black like overblown eyelashes, with teardrop-shaped sapphires blunting the pointed ends. The effect is beautiful, in a macabre, circus-folk sort of way. I can’t resist the urge to reach up and touch the glistening tears. The jewels flash through a spectrum of color until they’re no longer blue sapphires but fiery topazes—orange and warm. His lashes close as if in bliss for all of two seconds. Then his inky gaze opens and swallows me whole.

“I am ageless.” His voice echoes inside my head, though his lips don’t move. “I can use magic to mimic any age I wish. Using this power affects netherlings mentally, physically, emotionally. We become the age in every way. So, in essence, the only childhood I ever had was with you in your dreams. Open your memories, and you will see.”

The song comes to life once more—Morpheus’s lullaby.

This time, I don’t fight it. I wrap my mind around the fluid notes, letting them permeate my every thought until . . .

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