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As if I’m a puppet controlled by my netherling guide, I reach for the door.
“Al, don’t!” Jeb shouts.
I slide it open before he can get to me.
A long, dark corridor juts off from the room. I duck my head in. There’s enough light coming from behind me to see that the tunnel gets gradually smaller. A flash of movement in the blackness sends me tumbling backward into Jeb. He slips an arm around my waist and holds me against him as a small rabbit-shaped shadow, standing on two legs, appears in the doorway.
“Late,” its tiny voice says.
I clench my teeth against screaming. I can’t believe it. The White Rabbit is real.
“Late, I say. Lady Alice, too late be you.” The rabbit hops into the wavering candlelight. His unbuttoned red tailcoat flaps open, revealing his rib cage.
Jeb curses, and I slap a palm over my mouth.
It’s not the White Rabbit or any kind of rabbit at all. It’s a tiny, dwarfish creature the size of a bunny. The legs, arms, and body are humanoid but fleshless—a bleached-out skeleton. White gloves cover cadaverous hands; white lace-up boots protect his feet. The exception to the skeletal appearance is his bald head and his face of an old man, covered with flesh as pale as an albino’s. His eyes—wide and inquisitive like a doe’s—glow pink. Long white antlers sprout from behind each of his small human ears.
It’s clear how young Alice might’ve mistaken him for a rabbit. His horns look like ears when viewed in the shadows.
“White Rabbit?” I venture, feeling Jeb’s arm tighten around me as he mumbles in disbelief.
“White, Rabid,” the pint-size skeleton says. “Liddell, Alice . . . you not be. But her hands you have.”
I stare at my gloves. “I’m her great—”
“No one,” Jeb interrupts as he steps between me and the creature. He won’t let me out from behind him. I sense him going for the knife in his pocket and clutch his arm to stop him. Then I peer around his shoulder.
“Great No One, are you?” the creature asks, tilting his antlers to one side to see me.
“No. That’s not my name. Did you say Rabid is yours?”
The creature glances at the table, then back to us again, twisting his gloved hands nervously. “Rabid, I am. My family White be.” Appearing flustered by our lack of response, he bows at the waist. “Rabid White, of the Red Court be I. And are you?”
I can’t find my voice. My memories and the online stories were true. We’ve stepped into a nether-realm and are face-to-face with a netherling. That strange melody sings inside my heart, the one put there by my forgotten childhood playmate. It’s even more powerful than the fluttery sensation I sometimes feel. It tells me to embrace my identity, to be proud of who I am.
Without even thinking, I blurt out, “Alyssa Gardner of the human court, I be.”
Jeb hisses and his shoulders tense, but he doesn’t lose focus on our guest.
“Ohhhh.” The cadaverous creature swoons with an odd clacking sound, like a chime made of bones. His lips twist into a hideous snarl, revealing two long, bucked teeth. “Her gloves those be. A thief are you!”
Jeb snaps out the knife and flicks open the blade in one fluid movement, his other arm holding me behind him.
“Everything you’ll ruin.” Our guest’s pink eyes glow hot red. Saliva foams at his mouth. “Not welcome. So says Queen Grenadine, not welcome you be!” His screech hangs in the air as he hops into the shadowed corridor and vanishes.
“What do you mean, Queen Grenadine?” I shout after Rabid. “Since when is there a new queen? What happened to Red?”
Jeb tucks the knife away and grabs me before I can follow the creature into the hallway. “What was that?” His fingers dig into my shoulders as I strain to break free. “Seriously, what was it, Al? There isn’t a rabbit alive that looks like that!”
“Jeb! He’s getting away!” I thrash like a wild animal. “I know where he’s going . . . it’s the door my key was made for. Please!” There is fear in Jeb’s eyes, and I wonder why I don’t share it. All I know is I’ve always been different in my world. In a place like this, I’m actually ordinary.
“No.” Jeb crosses my arms over my chest, then lifts me against one of the curtains on the wall so my feet dangle, pinning me like a butterfly to a corkboard. “We’re not going anywhere. That foaming freak thinks you stole those gloves. And now he knows your name. Very smooth, by the way.”
“I didn’t say it intentionally,” I grind out, boots swinging with my effort to get down.
“What does that mean—intentionally?”
The same inner melody that gave me courage to speak earlier warns me not to say anything about the moth, the stranger, or the music.
“From what I know about this place,” I offer, “it’s a magical realm. And the thing we just saw was a netherling . . . one of the occupants.”
“‘Magical’?” Jeb stares at me as if my head’s on crooked. “I don’t remember Lewis Carroll’s version saying anything about little walking skeletons.”
“Alice must’ve been too young to understand what she saw. Maybe her mind blocked out the darker details.” I glance at my gloved palms, understanding the desire to hide from bad memories on a level few people could.
“If you’re right,” Jeb says, “then our guidebook is screwed.” He looks at the pinhole of sunlight overhead. “The entrance is still open.” He lowers me to the ground but keeps holding my elbow.
I grip his tuxedo’s lapel. “Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter that Wonderland’s different than what Carroll wrote. All these years, Alison’s been locked up in a psych ward for nothing. It’s real. You weren’t there today. They treated her like an invalid. If they fry her brain, she might end up incapacitated forever. I won’t leave without helping her!”
“We’ve got stuff to help her now. The cake and the bottle.”
“It won’t be enough. I have to fix something Alice did. He told me—” I stop myself too late.
“Who told you?”
“I . . . I found a website.” I clench my jaw. I’ve already said too much.
“Some perv lured you here via a magical website?” Jeb won’t let go of my arm.