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That stab of unease becomes a full-blown punch. “We should—”
“Run!” Jeb grabs my hand and jerks me into a sprint toward the rabbit hole’s door.
“How do we get in?” My thighs strain with each jarring step.
“We break the friggin’ lock.”
I almost trip on my boot heels. Jeb is unrelenting, dragging me along. “We don’t have to go so fast! They’re rooted in the ground!”
“Don’t bet on it,” he says.
I follow his gaze over my shoulder. It’s like a zombie movie—the flowers moan and rip their stems up from the dirt; their mouths stretch wide, pressed open by long, spindly teeth, clear and dripping with slobber like melting icicles. The balding dandelion gets free first and sprouts humanlike arms and legs. She uses her roots for added momentum, as if she’s being propelled by snakes. She whips out a strand of ivy and loops it around Jeb’s ankle, lassoing him. With one tug, she drops him to the ground.
“Jeb!” I catch his wrists in a tug-of-war against the hissing flower.
“There’s no out the way you came in,” another flower growls as it squirms from its grave of dirt a few feet away. That’s when I realize none of them are flowers, not really. Just like with the dandelion, arms and legs appear as they burst out of the ground.
They’re part humanoid, part plant—multi-eyed mutants.
“The rabbit hole only opens into our realm. The portals that open out to yours are guarded in the castles far across the ocean, inside the pulsing heart of Wonderland,” one flower says while waving an arm. Vines cling to the greenish flesh along its naked biceps. “Therein is the only escape. Don’t you think we would’ve already left, were there a way out of the hole?”
I picture all the furniture pinned up along the tunnel wall with ivy. So, they’d been trying to build a way into our world? I shiver.
Jeb struggles under the vines now roped around his waist. “Al, run,” he mumbles.
“Yes, run,” the dandelion mutant taunts. She cups my chin with mossy fingertips and tilts her head to see me with her three remaining eyeballs. “Run or be eaten.”
A fresh wave of terror trickles through my spine. I shake it off as a flash of knowing comes to me: The netherling boy from my memories once taught me how to defeat this flower.
It’s as easy as blowing tufts in the wind.
On impulse, I reach up and pluck off what’s left of her seeds, leaving her blind. A white, gooey liquid dribbles down my hands from the exposed eye sockets. She shrieks and droops to the ground, incapacitated.
I’m peripherally aware of Jeb fishing the knife from his pocket beneath the greenery binding him. If I can provide a distraction, maybe he can get us out of this.
I hold up the dandelion seeds. The sticklike eyeballs writhe in my hand, trying to stare at me. I toss them down, stomping them. “Who’s next?” I hope to sound tough, but my voice quavers.
The zombie flowers howl and fling their vines around my ankles. Ivy snakes around my legs and torso and up my chest, sealing me within a leafy cocoon so thick only my head and upheld arms are free. Then two strands cinch my wrists together. With a yank, they flip me onto my stomach. I can’t budge.
Jeb and the incapacitated dandelion are all but forgotten as the others surround me.
Misshapen hands, green with chlorophyll, skim across me—cold and rough like leaves shaken from trees after a storm. Dizziness clouds my head. The vines are too tight. I can’t jerk away. I can’t even get enough air to scream.
Hot gusts blow over me. Eyes clenched shut, I sob. Slobber drizzles along my nape from someone’s mouth, glomming strands of my hair together.
“Wait!” one of them shouts close enough to my ear that it rings. “She’s wearing the gloves!”
Sliding my cheek against the gritty ground, I peer up at hundreds of eyelashes blinking in rapid succession.
“It is true!” a white-rose-headed freak gasps. “Do you have the fan, as well?”
Neck craned, I nod. My left nostril fills with dirt at the effort.
“We should celebrate!” They pass the bucket of aphids around among them.
“Do you think it’s her? After all this time?” a flower with pink petals asks, munching on her snack.
“She does look rather like you know who.”
“Even more of the devil’s seed in this one, to be sure,” Pinky adds. “The eyes of a tiger lily she has.”
“Just think of it.” One of the flowers pops a screeching aphid into its mouth as the bucket passes by. “We’ll soon be connected to the heart of Wonderland once more!”
The rose-head leans low, intent on me. “So, are you here to set things right?”
My gaze drifts between their body stems. Jeb has almost sawed his way out of the vines. Just a little longer. Over the fear nested in my chest, I force myself to talk. “Yes. Set things right.”
“About time. We can pick up roots, but we can’t traipse across the water, even in a boat. We must stay connected to the soil. The path to Wonderland’s heart has to be opened to us. For that to happen, Alice’s tears must be dried up. That’s your job!”
“Hear, hear!” they all say in unison. “Your job to fix her messes.”
The rose snaps two thorny fingers to silence the rest of the garden. “You must go across the ocean and onto the island of black sands. Inside the heart of Wonderland, the Wise One waits. He has been here since the beginning. He smokes the pipe of wisdom. He knows what must be done.”
“Pipe? You mean the Caterpillar?” I ask.
Wicked laughter erupts among my captors.
“The Caterpillar,” Pinky scoffs. “Well, I suppose you could call him that. That’s what the other one called him.”
“The other one?” I ask.
“Your other,” the rose says. “The one whose tears formed the ocean that now isolates us from the rest of our kind. High time a descendant came down to mend things.”
Before I can respond, an orange monstrosity steps up to speak. Spindly fronds fall from her mouth, where they cling to her drool. Stinging nettles tip her fingernails. “We could ask the octobenus to take her across. We’ll use the elfin knight as leverage. His blood alone is worth all the white gold in the Ivory Queen’s palace. The octobenus can trade it for a bevy of clams. He’ll never go hungry again. He cannot refuse such a bargain.”