Splintered Page 38

My chest hurts, as if someone used my heart for a punching bag. That’s why Alison said those things in the courtyard . . . that if I went through with my plan to find the rabbit hole, she’d have done it all for nothing. She put herself through years of overmedicated humiliation and horror because she hoped to keep me away from here. Then I went and ruined everything by searching Morpheus out.

Which makes what my dad and the doctors are planning even more devastating.

“My fault,” I whisper, trying not to cry. “Everything that’s happened to her . . . my fault.”

“Al, don’t let him guilt you!” The rustle of Jeb’s clothes as he strains against the cuffs barely registers.

Morpheus tips my chin up. “Yes, bear no guilt. Because you discovered the rabbit hole and were brave enough to leap inside. You’re the only one who’s ever had such cunning and courage since Alice herself. And you’ve already managed to dry up the ocean she left behind. You’re going to fix everything for your mum. For all of us. You’re very special, Alyssa. Very special, indeed.” He tugs at my wrist, lifting me to stand on tiptoe until my nose touches the lower lines of his mask. He’s so close, I can almost taste his licoricescented lips.

A loud snap cracks the air, and Morpheus breaks his hold on me. I rock back on my heels. The sprites screech as Jeb’s restraints break free of the mushroom.

Jeb rolls on the ground and whips his legs around. The broken cuffs—still attached to his ankles, neck, and wrists—trail him like a scorpion’s coiling tail, and catch Morpheus in the spin, slamming him to the ground. The impact knocks off his hat and evaporates the smoke, leaving both guys wrestling in a tangle of wings and limbs.

Jeb straddles Morpheus and cinches his fingers around his neck. “I told you not to touch her.” His deep voice is hoarse yet calm, making the hair on my neck stand on end.

Morpheus makes the mistake of laughing, and Jeb snaps. One hand clutching Morpheus’s neck, he punches him, crumpling the red satin mask. Morpheus twists his head to dodge the strike. His wings lie wrinkled and hapless beneath him.

My muscles tense. I’m at war with myself. A part of me wants to defend Morpheus—to plead his case with Jeb; the other part roots for Jeb to beat him to a puddle. I bend over, temples throbbing as I drown in a sea of distorted memories and disjointed emotions. The sprites whimper and swarm in the branches above. They’ve obviously never seen their master attacked by anyone.

Morpheus thrusts his knees out to knock Jeb off and they spin through the neon grasses, leaving a flattened trail. This time, Morpheus ends up on top. His wings enfold them like a tent. The outline of Jeb’s face appears, pressed against the black satiny membrane on the other side. A sucking motion reveals an imprint of his mouth.

He’s suffocating.

I burst through my mental haze and launch into Morpheus, toppling him. He rolls on the ground, wrapped within his wings like a pupa.

Dropping to my knees, I lower my face to Jeb’s. His breath warms my nose, slow and even, but he won’t open his eyes. “Jeb! Wake up, please . . .” I drag his shoulders onto my lap to cradle his head.

Morpheus stands and dusts himself off.

“What did you do?” I scream.

He repositions his crumpled mask, then draws each wing over his shoulders and runs his palms across them, checking for damage. “He’s merely unconscious.” Putting his hat back on, Morpheus touches the handprints on his neck, eyes darkening. “It was a kindness. I could’ve killed him.” He snarls. “Should’ve, actually. No doubt I’ll rue that decision.”

Glancing up at his harem, Morpheus motions the sprites down. “Take the pseudo elf back to the manor. Wake him from his slumber. Make him feel welcome as only you can.”

Gossamer is the first to descend from the trees. There seem to be even more sprites now. Following her lead, they drop down in torrents, a glimmering rainfall.

“No!” I throw myself across Jeb. I slash at them with my fists. On Gossamer’s command, they collide with my arms and ribs at full speed, stinging like hail. I refuse to move until Morpheus snatches my collar and forces me to my feet.

My writhing in his grasp only makes him more resolute. His arm winds around my waist, as hard and strong as a metal clamp. He holds my back pinned at his side with my feet dangling. Fifty or more sprites raise Jeb up by his clothes. His head lolls, and his shirt and pants pucker beneath their grips, as if he’s being hoisted on ropes.

“Jeb!” I shout. Tears blur my vision when he doesn’t respond. “Be careful with him.”

The tiny females are only able to carry him a few inches off the ground, and the long grasses bend under his weight as he’s dragged from the clearing. Some of the remaining sprites tug the backpack behind the procession. When the last stretch of grass pops up in their wake, I shove against Morpheus and break free, though it’s only because he lets me.

“If our time together ever meant anything to you, you won’t hurt him.” Hot tears pour down my cheeks.

Morpheus reaches out to catch a teardrop on his fingertip. He holds it up in the pale glow that radiates from the few remaining sprites above us. A curious frown curves his lips. “You cry for him yet bled for me. One must wonder which is more powerful. More binding. I suppose we shall one day know.”

My throat dries. “What are you talking about? Bled for you?”

He rubs my tear into his skin as if it were lotion. “All in good time. As to your toy soldier, spare no grief for him. He’s getting scads of attention. And once he’s oblivious in his ecstasy, he’ll forget where he is and who he came with. Though I imagine I’ll have to send him to some other part of Wonderland to keep him out of my hair.”

Terror grips me. Bad enough those pint-size nymphets are going to seduce Jeb, but if they make him forget who he is, he’ll be lost here forever. Jeb’s here because of me. He doesn’t deserve an ending like this. “Please, just send him back to our world.”

Morpheus shrugs. “Not possible. We’re having a bit of trouble with transportation here in the nether-realm.”

“That can’t be true.”

He steps closer. “Can’t it?”

I take two steps away. “You visited me at home, at work. Watched me. Almost choked Alison with the wind . . .”

He throws his head back and laughs, raising his arms as if he’s some grand performer. “Imagine that. Me, controlling the wind and weather. Why, I must be a god.”

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