Splintered Page 44

I know better.

Morpheus sits across from me, spinning Queen Red’s chess piece as my stomach sinks back into place.

“How does it end?” I ask.

“Your nightmare knows.”

I place the Alice figure upon a black square. “The stork and the queen fought in midair. Alice escaped and came looking for you.”

“But I couldn’t do a bloody thing for her because I had already begun my metamorphosis. I was locked in that cocoon for seventyfive years.”

“So how did Alice win?”

Morpheus rolls the statue of the red queen across the board, knocking over Alice. “She didn’t. As you know very well, her lineage was cursed.”

“And that’s why you brought me here.”

He nods once. “To set your family free and reopen the portals back home, you must fix all the messes that caused Queen Red to be exiled and lose her crown: drain the ocean, return the gloves and fan to the duchess, make peace with the clams and the tea party guests. Only you can break Red’s magic bonds.”

A weighty silence follows, broken only by the sound of the cascading waterfall around the bed. I reach for the caterpillar figurine, but Morpheus’s hand catches mine. Warmth seeps through his glove and into my bones.

For an instant, I see him so clearly as the teasing child he was when we spent time together in my dreams. I understood him then, why he collected moth corpses, because their wings represented freedom, something that he’d been without while locked inside his cocoon . . . why he loved flying, especially in storms, because outrunning the lightning gave him a sense of power. Just like he understood my quirks: my fear of heights, my hunger for security. But here, he’s tortured, seductive, and unreadable. All grown up with just as much baggage as me.

“That’s why you’re involved,” I mumble, testing a hypothesis. “To appease your guilty conscience for failing Alice.”

Hissing, he stands in a rushed flurry of wings and leather. Gusts from the movement flit through my hair. “My guilt for what happened with Alice can never be appeased.” He snatches up the Cheshire Cat figurine and paces the rug. Despite his impressive height, he’s as graceful as a black swan. “And don’t delude yourself. I’m not quite that unselfish.”

“I know you too well to think otherwise.” I lift an eyebrow, toasting him with my teacup.

He looks at me briefly, almost smiling. “In her fight with the stork, Red managed to get the blade. I might’ve been unreachable in my cocoon, but Chessie was there. He dived for Alice before Red could behead her. He took the strike that was meant for the child.” Morpheus balances the cat figurine on his fingertip, holding it up to the light. “Chessie is of a rare strain—not one part spirit and one part flesh but both at once. He can vanish and reappear in midair and twist himself into any shape. Such a being is nigh impossible to kill. When Red cut him with the vorpal sword—the one blade that can slice through any magic in the nether-realm—it cleaved his magic in twain. Split in two, but still alive.”

“So he didn’t die?” I set my teacup aside.

“Not exactly. His head rolled toward the bushes where Alice was hiding. He managed to catch the vorpal sword in his mouth and spat it at her feet. Chessie’s bottom half was captured by Queen Red, and in one last act of defiance, she fed it to her pet bandersnatch before she was captured and banished from the kingdom.”

Morpheus shakes the box that earlier held the chess pieces. Out falls the biggest figurine of all: a grotesque creature with dragon’s talons and a spiked tail. Its gaping mouth and jagged teeth send a shudder of terror up my spine. When I was little, I used to hide this one while we animated the other pieces.

Morpheus tosses the cat into the air, then lets it plop soundly on his palm, squeezing his fingers around it. “What did I teach you about the bandersnatch?” he asks, testing me.

“It’s bigger than a freight car. It swallows its food whole so the victim decomposes slowly in the dark void of its belly—a death that can take over a century to complete.”

That glint of pride shines back at me. “Correct. For Chessie, who cannot die, it’s like being exiled on a desert island, without any sun or moon or stars. Or wind or water. Just death, all around you. There, half of him resides to this day, trapped and longing to be reunited with its head once more.”

A nudge of sympathy knocks at my heart. “You want me to help free Chessie from the bandersnatch, so he can find his head again.”

Morpheus turns on his heel to face me, wings drooping. “All I need is the vorpal sword. Only its blade can cut through the hide of the bandersnatch. Alice hid the sword in the one place she knew it would be safe. Somewhere so ridiculous and mundane, no one would look for it there.” His gaze falls on the figurines in front of me, and I pick up a character with an odd, cagelike hat.

“The tea party. The Mad Hatter has it,” I guess.

“You’ve forgotten. That is strictly a Carrollism—the name Lewis used in his tale of fiction. His true name is Herman Hattington. And there’s nothing mad about him. He’s rather jolly, in fact, when he’s awake.”

I tap the carving’s head, waiting for an explanation.

“Alice left the tea party guests beneath a sleeping spell,” Morpheus continues. “Wake them, and they can tell you where the sword is. You’ve already dried up the ocean and made peace with the clams. I’ve a guest coming to the banquet tonight who will receive the gloves and fan on the duchess’s behalf. After that, making things right for the tea party guests will be the only thing left undone.”

Standing the Alice figurine up again, I place the caterpillar next to her, thoughtful.

Morpheus returns to the table and drops the cat into the brass box, then sweeps all the other characters in with him. Standing over me, he holds out his palm. “What say you, Alyssa? Are you willing to help me while you’re helping yourself? A favor for your childhood friend?”

Once Jeb and I get home, I can tell Alison that the nightmare is finally over, that we’ll never be connected to Wonderland again. Just thinking of her smile sparks an ember in my heart.

Taking a breath, I slide my fingers into Morpheus’s and meet his gaze. “I’ll do it.”

He lifts my hand and presses soft lips to my knuckles. “I always knew you would.” Then he smiles, his jewels glistening gold and bright.

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