Splintered Page 35

“Winter’s Heartbeat,” Jeb says from beside me.

I nod. “You see the resemblance, too?”

His jaw spasms. “You’ve been here before.”

I shake off my unease and step up to the tree, kicking a path through the fallen rubies. A spot at the base of the trunk pulses behind the diamond-bark like a heartbeat. With each thrum, it lights up in red lines the same shape as the birthmark on my ankle. The image sparks a memory of me and the winged boy, fuzzy yet unmistakable.

Jeb moves closer and I turn to hold his shoulder for balance, lifting my left leg to unlace my boot.

“What are you doing?”

“Following instructions,” I answer, peeling off the boot and hiking up my leggings to expose my ankle. Jeb grips my elbow as I crouch down, pressing the maze on my ankle against the glowing lines of the tree.

A shock of static electricity leaps from me to the trunk; then a loud cracking breaks the hush. Jeb yanks me back as the trunk splits, rolling open, the glittering bark like a scroll to expose a doorway. A soft red glow throbs and beckons from within.

“The pulsing heart of Wonderland,” I whisper, shoving my foot into my boot again.

The red light reflects off Jeb’s labret. “Okay, I’ll buy that you came here as a kid and are having some kind of repressed memory flashes. But how is it you have a mark on your body that unlocks anything in this place?”

I hesitate, then tell him what I read about netherlings talking to bugs, and what I suspect about my family curse: that we share some characteristics with the creatures here, including freaky magical marks on our bodies.

Jeb stares at me, and I wonder how much more of this he can take without going crackers.

“You okay?” I ask, biting my lip.

Swallowing, he slides his fingers through his hair. “It’s you I’m worried about. So how do we break this ‘curse’?”

My heart bounces when he says “we.” He’s in this with me to the end. Not just because he’s stuck here, but because he’s the Jeb I grew up with. My Jeb. “I have to find someone inside. The one from my past . . . the one who used to bring me here.”

Jeb frowns. “Okay. According to the flowers, this is also where the portals are. Right? The doors that will take us home?”

“Yeah,” I answer, half expecting him to try to talk me into waiting outside while he checks things out. Instead, he holds me back only long enough to get out the flashlight, reposition the backpack, and take the lead. We descend a winding stairway through a dark tunnel that seems to spiral down forever.

“Don’t look down,” Jeb says.

Why do people say that? It only makes it impossible not to. My gaze sinks to the steps thudding beneath our boots. Bones, interlocked and bound with some kind of shimmery gold twine, make up the stairs. Most of the bones are deformed in size and shape. Others look humanoid. I press my palm over my mouth.

“What are they from?” Jeb whispers. “Ancestors? Human captives?”

I scan my foggy memories. “I don’t remember ever learning about this . . .”

Jeb picks up his pace. We leap off the last step and duck through a curtain of vines. Instead of finding ourselves deep underground, a vista opens in front of us underneath a dark purple sky. The sun and the moon are twisted into one, the moon a blue tinge next to its brighter brother.

The combined light turns everything an ultraviolet hue. Plants of all kinds—bushes, flowers, trees, and ground cover—are neon beneath the blended rays: pinks, purples, greens, yellows, and oranges.

The paler shades of our clothes glow, too. No wonder I always felt so at home in Underland’s activity center. On some subconscious level, it reminded me of this place.

A cool gust, thick with the scent of loam, greenery, and flowers, blows across us. Then I catch wind of something else—a fruity incense drifting our way. I know that smell. “Follow the smoke,” I say, abandoning the path.

Jeb takes my hand and helps me over a bed of fluorescent marigolds. I squeeze his fingers in gratitude. My body is starting to feel the effects of our insane water ride. I have bumps and bruises everywhere.

As we lumber ahead, I can’t stop thinking of the way he came back for me in the water, the way he wouldn’t give up, the way he jumped into the mirror in my bedroom without a thought for his own safety. Maybe we should talk about what’s going on between us, because something is definitely changing on my end. I run my tongue along the roof of my mouth nervously. I’ve been holding on to this secret so tightly for so long.

“Listen, Jeb.” I gulp twice. “About what happened back there on the ocean floor. I—”

“Later.” Glancing behind me, he catches my shoulders. “We have company.”

He forces me to duck as a glowing cloud swoops over us, glimmering like fireflies.

“It’s her!” a tiny voice squeals over the hum of many wings. “It is!” A swarm of humanoid creatures the size of grasshoppers and the color of lima beans hovers around us. They’re all females, naked with glittery scales that curve around their breasts and torsos in swirling designs. Their pointed ears and flowing hair sparkle, and their eyes are bulbous and metallic like a dragonfly’s, as if they’re wearing copper sunglasses. Wings flutter next to my cheek, milky white and furred with something resembling dandelion fuzz.

One of them gets close enough to pat Jeb’s temple, her palms no bigger than a ladybug’s body. “I found him. He’s my prize!” “Mine!” three others screech, tunneling into his hair. Jeb clenches his hands around the backpack’s straps. “No, sister sprites,” one answers with a voice like a chime. She hovers in front of Jeb, as enthralled as the others. “Our master said they shall be in my keep.”

The others grumble and pull back.

Suspended in midair, the tiny victor bows while flapping her wings. “I am Gossamer. I shall lead you to the one you seek.” Her dragonfly eyes glimmer in my direction and brighten, as if she’s angry. “To the one who seeks you.” My stomach flips at her implication.

Then she turns to Jeb. “Elfin knight, do you wish for pleasure on your quest? I can provide it, if you so desire.”

Rubbing his labret with his thumb, Jeb glances at me, adorably bewildered. “Um. No thanks. I’m good.”

Giggling, the sprite flutters ahead, joining the others.

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