Splintered Page 66

Bad news is, they’ve figured out I’m alive. Worse news, I can’t be sure about them. Their decomposing stench burns my throat. They don’t sound very big. Maybe they’re pygmy zombies.

I creep myself out with that thought and have to suppress a whimper.

The ropes loosen around my ankles. They’ll have me out of my winged cocoon soon. Then I’ll have to face whatever they are. Nervous anticipation makes my pulse jump.

“Usses are only to brung the deadses. Twids usn’t approve of ’stakes being missed,” one of the creatures says shrilly.

“Missing ’stakes aren’t the worsest of our oblems-prob.”

“Eps and yesses. Mistakens usn’t our aults, f ’s or any other. Sister One asks usses to brung her here.”

“Asks or notses, Sister Two will hang usses by our necks! No ivinglees are to be brunged. No breathers or talkeresses. None, none, none!”

Their language is a mix between pig latin and utter nonsense. The best I can tell, they work for the Twid Sisters as the gatherers of dead things. They’re worried Sister Two won’t be pleased that something living has been brought onto the hallowed grounds. Sounds like she might hang them for that mistake. If they think on it long enough, they might decide to make me dead to save themselves.

I clench my teeth to stave off a stab of fear. Maybe Sister One won’t let them hurt me, since she assigned them my capture. Which raises a new question: Why did she want me here?

A distant thrum of thunder rolls through my bones. I force myself to breathe, inhaling the scent of moist earth over the stench of my captors. The cemetery must be watertight, because rain’s hitting what sounds like leaves overhead, but I’m not getting wet.

What if Jeb is in the middle of the storm? What if he gets caught in a mudslide?

I’ve got to get back to him. I can use the rope around my ankles as an extension to the chain.

My captors are still arguing about what to do with me, and the reality hits that no one’s going to come to my rescue here. It’s up to me to save myself.

Insecurity sinks its teeth in, vicious and biting.

But wait. I’m no stranger to this world—I’m acquainted with its secrets. Maybe that was only in my dreams, but I still learned things that have saved me more than once on this journey. I’m not the helpless and vulnerable little girl I was when I used to play here.

I’m not even the same girl I was when I arrived in the rabbit hole with Jeb. I’m stronger.

For one, I have wings now; and, as I’ve seen with Morpheus, they can be used for more than just flying. They can be weapons and shields.

Hoping for the benefit of surprise, I thrash my legs where the ropes are loose. The creatures ricochet off my bucking shins, no heavier than guinea pigs.

They scream as I shift to my side and the chain jingles to the ground. I unlatch it from my belt and my wings snap open. Gasping air into my lungs, I kick out my legs and roll to my feet, keeping a brave front in case the creatures are like dogs and can smell fear. I even manage a decent roar while I balance my weight against the new appendages.

The creatures scurry around my feet, hissing. They’re wearing tiny miner’s caps, and the lights bob all around like reflections from a disco ball, disorienting me.

I immediately recognize them from the Wonderland website. They’re like the paintings of pixies trapped in cages, crying silver tears—gruesome yet fascinating.

Their long tails and primate faces remind me of spider monkeys, except for their hairless hides. Silver slime oozes from their bald skin, the origin of the noxious scent I’ve been gagging on. Their bulbous eyes are silver, too, with no pupils or irises, so they glimmer like wet coins—almost glaring, even in the dim light.

Oily droplets trail their footsteps. A glance at my feet reveals the same silvery slick residue around my boots. They must have used their tails to drag me here, not ropes, which means I’ll need to find another way to make a cable for Jeb.

A few of the pixies pause at my feet and look from the chain to me, debating whether it’s worth the effort to bind me again. I pick up the links, then swoop my wings low to bowl the creatures over, stomping my feet for good measure. The pixies squirm into some hedges where the others have already hidden.

Whimpers shake the leaves, along with flashes of light from their caps. The creatures sound more scared than I feel.

I’m in a covered garden, dark and musty. Over to my left, I spot a smattering of glittery items—from bracelets and necklaces to unset jewels—and a pile of bones along with several reels the size of bicycle tires filled with gold, shimmery thread. I’m reminded of the creepy staircase Jeb and I climbed down to get into the heart of Wonderland; it could’ve been built from these materials. Maybe the jewelry is the pixies’ payment for their creations.

I pick up a reel of gold and tug on the thread. Though it looks elegant and fragile, it’s deceptively strong, like telephone cord. Strong enough to hold Jeb’s weight.

As I loop the chain through the hole in the middle of the reel to fashion a sling, a few of the pixies scurry out to drag the remaining reels, bones, and jewelry into their hiding places, hissing at me.

I size them up, searching my memory for anything Morpheus taught me about them, trying to assess if they’re a threat. I remember a sketch he drew. How his long, elegant fingers pointed to their likenesses. He said they’re docile and shy and love anything that glitters. Like snakes, they shed their skin when they grow, but, unlike snakes’, their skin decomposes in greasy patches before falling off, giving them a unique rapport with the dead. In fact, they feel more at home with corpses than living things.

I’m nothing but a novelty to them. They have no reason to hurt me. The staccato beat of my heart slows.

I turn on my heel, looking for an exit. The wings tangle under my boots, causing me to step all over them. Twinges of pain shoot through my spine and shoulders, proof the appendages are attached to my skeleton.

A few wayward giggles shake the bushes and I glare at my invisible audience while freeing myself. My wings can’t stretch all the way up, due to the low-hanging thorny vines and briars of the roof.

I pull a wing over my right shoulder to make sure I didn’t hurt it. Contact with the veinlike cross sections sends pulses through my back. It’s like touching sunlight and webs. Warm, ethereal, but not sticky . . . fine-spun.

I’m struck by how something so delicate can give me such a sense of power. My wings are not black like Morpheus’s. They’re closer to white frosted glass with spots of glittery jewels that blink every color of the rainbow like the jewels under his eyes. The pattern reminds me of butterflies.

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