Splintered Page 68

A tunnel of massive webs curves ahead, heavy with dots of amber light.

Once, in Pleasance, after a summer storm, I found a spiderweb in a tree with rows upon rows of dewdrops on every radial. The sun sliced through a cloud and lit the droplets as if they were on fire. It was amazing, water . . . on fire.

That’s what this looks like—magnified by the thousands. But these are not dewdrops clinging to the giant cobweb. These are roses: crystalline and cabbage-size. Their scent is different from the roses’ back home. It’s spicy with a hint of scorched fermentation, like autumn leaves.

I step deeper within. The lights pulse like a heartbeat, hypnotic. Another roll of thunder quakes overhead. Fog drifts along the ground—a carpet of mist spooky enough for a horror movie.

I inch closer, captivated by the electric fluctuations in the center of each glassy rose. Awareness surges through me, that same knowing that hit when I sprouted wings. The light inside these flowers is the residue of life. This is the garden where Sister One plants and tends spirits. And I’m standing smack in the midst of Wonderland’s dearly departed.

The ground is hallowed here. No wonder the pixies didn’t follow me. Unnerved, I back up.

“Do not fear. Come closer, fair child. I have what you seek.” The whisper stops me in my tracks.

“Chessie?” I mutter. There’s no way the quest could be this easy.

“ You’ll not find that treacherous creature in this web. But I can serve you better than he.”

The voice is coming from one of the roses. A red swirl gilds its transparent petals, reminding me of stained glass. I bend low and part the bloom’s center, expecting a hard, slick surface. Instead, my fingertips meet a soft velveteen fuzz, an incandescent fur that coats the petals like a fiber-optic novelty.

As if responding to my touch, the light brightens, then takes on the shape of a face, eerily lifelike, just like the cameos of white smoke Morpheus blew from his hookah.

“He found you at last,” the face whispers, “bearer of my pin.” A scowl stretches her features. “I assumed your hair would be red . . . well, no matter. We can amend the color. You will do beautifully.”

I touch the ruby hairpin, words frozen on my tongue. The woman’s tattooed eyes look like mine, and I recognize her vaguely but can’t place her. Before I can draw back from the petals, the light separates from the bloom then shoots into my fingers on a shock wave. A fizzy sensation jitters through my veins and illuminates them beneath the skin on the back of my hands so they appear green—like chlorophyll. My veins sprout leaves at every turn, making them look more like vines than channels of blood.

Then, just as quickly as they brightened, my veins blend once more into my flesh, as though nothing happened.

I could have imagined it. One thing I didn’t imagine, though, was the sense of intrusion. For a minute, someone else shared my body.

With a snap, the rose cracks and withers beneath my hand.

The minute the rose dies, the thousands of surrounding blooms shake on their webbed trellises, all whispering at once.

The cacophony surges through my eardrums. I clutch my ears.

Their murmurs rise to a harrowing screech, as if someone has taken a cello’s bow and scratched it across a chalkboard—back and forth, again and again—feeding the vibrations through subwoofers turned full blast in my brain. I fall to my knees, screaming.

“You’ve gained a square.” A woman’s singsong voice cuts through the chaos. As she scurries by, a rustle of skirts touches my sleeve.

Her long, pale fingers tug on the web that surrounds the shattered rose, playing the anchor lines with the mastery of a harpist. The other blossoms—still trembling and murmuring—grow quieter until their whispers are tolerable again.

I look up into her face, eyes sky-bright blue and lips the lavender of November dusk. Her skin is so translucent, she’s like a drawing on a piece of tracing paper—shimmery and gauzy, with hair the color of pencil shavings. A red and white striped dress, fitted at the bodice like a candy striper’s uniform but with a long, flowing hoop skirt, gives the illusion she’s from the Regency era.

I stand, shaky, and back away. She follows. The lacy hem of her skirt kicks up and sweeps fog from around her feet. If she had ankles and shins, they’d be showing. Instead, eight jointed limbs, black and shiny like a spider’s, glide underneath. It’s as if someone took her torso and snapped it into place atop the thorax of a black widow.

I swallow a groan. The hoop skirt must hide a globule abdomen along with the spinnerets used to make this tunnel of web. I suppress the urge to run for my life. Wouldn’t do any good. The roof ’s too low for me to use my wings, and there’s no way I can outrun that many legs.

“Sister One?” I croak, surprised I can get anything out of my compressed voice box.

“How do you do?” She offers an open palm for a shake. I can’t bring myself to reciprocate, for fear she’ll spin me up and tuck me away for a late-night snack.

Her hand drops. “You gained a square but lost the queen.” She grows taller in one smooth motion, as if raised up on a mechanical platform. “That was not in my bargain with Morpheus.” Her hands settle on her waist.

“Morpheus?” Suspicion defeats horror. He’s the reason she had me dragged here? Was it to ensure I’d find Chessie’s head? But he said she was holding a grudge, so why is she helping him?

“Have you stolen the queen? Or is she on the loose?” Sister One’s blue eyes glimmer, her feathery black lashes narrowing.

“Umm.” I shoot a sideways glance at the rose I ruined, now splintered like the mirror in my room. And then it hits me why the smoky white silhouette looked familiar. “That was Queen Red!” The netherling who cursed my family. “I didn’t know she was dead . . .”

“Yes, was.” Sister One leans down to wave a finger at my nose. “And this was not part of the bargain.”

The roses on the web start to shake again, more volatile this time. The movement rocks my equilibrium, as if I’m spinning inside some carnival ride. Sister One holds out her palms to me.

“You woke them! You must help me lull them back to sleep!” She starts to sing a familiar tune . . . not Morpheus’s lullaby but something else from my childhood.

“Ring around the rosy . . .”

Her eight feet tap to the rhythm, waiting for a dance partner. Trying not to think about the spinnerets beneath her skirt, I take her hands. Her skin is smooth and smells of sunlight and dust.

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