The Moth in the Mirror
Page 5

 A.G. Howard

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A jubjub bird’s carcass had broken his fall. He wiped sticky goo from between his fingers onto his pants, turning up his nose at the rank remains of the army that had been chasing them and tumbled into the chasm. He pushed himself to stand in the pitch-dark gloom. His boots made sucking sounds as he walked. He’d never been squeamish; any aversion to blood and gore had been beaten out of him—a gradual desensitization reinforced each time he’d look in the mirror to find his cheeks and eyes swollen up, fat and bloody like raw steak.
But without a speck of light to go by, the carnage at his feet felt more alive than dead. His imagination pulled out files on everything from zombie movies to demons and hauntings. Nausea burned his stomach. He took solace that only the wind whistled through the chasm. He couldn’t hear any ghostly chains or undead moans.
Besides, time was the actual foe here, more dangerous than anything he could imagine. Al still had to complete the final task in the cemetery. And then they had to find each other again.
He forced himself blindly forward until his palm skimmed the chasm’s wall. Before he’d dropped all the way down, he’d caught a glimpse of Al’s backpack snagged on a rock outcropping about a yard north. If he could find it, he’d have a flashlight. Hands scraping the crusty surface of the stone, he lifted his feet over obstacles, patting his toes across corpses to assess how wide each step should stretch.
Rubbing the scrapes on his elbows, he studied the sky. A shy smattering of stars wrestled the clouds and broke through to dimly light his surroundings, enabling him to wend his way around the queen’s dead army. A damp breeze spun dust like tiny tornados. It was going to rain. And in this place, it was possible it would literally rain cats and dogs—the hissing and barking variety.
A chill that had nothing to do with the impending storm crept across his soul and shadowed any humor he might’ve found in the thought. What was with all of Morpheus’s “tests”? Each time Al successfully completed one, her netherling form became more prominent. Was the goal to alter her completely, so she couldn’t go back to the human realm?
Strands of hair blew into his face, and he shoved them aside.
Morpheus had said that all he ever wanted was to return Alyssa to her proper place. Her home. Jeb had hoped that meant back to their world, the human realm. But what if Al didn’t have a curse on her at all?
He remembered from his fairy research that there were creatures called changelings—the offspring of fairies secretly left in the place of stolen human babies. Had Al’s great-great-great- grandmother, Alice Liddell, been a changeling? Maybe that was how she’d found the rabbit hole as a child—by instinct. That would mean that this was Al’s home, in some warped way.
Jeb shook off the speculations. They only dredged up more questions.
He’d reached the backpack. Opening it, he fished out the flashlight and flipped it on.
As he zipped up the bag, he brushed the landscape with swaths of light. The tattered guards looked like crumpled playing cards. Discarded playthings. Even the busted-up jubjub birds could pass as children’s toys with the stuffing pulled out.
Backpack in place, Jeb walked the circumference of the chasm without finding any openings. Displaced rocks filled any possible passages he might’ve tried. He might as well have fallen into a giant tube. There was no way out other than up.
He pointed his light at the grassy perch some twenty stories above—the clearing where Alyssa had landed. He was determined to find her before Morpheus did, even if he had to scale the jutting rocks in the dark without a safety rope.
He’d no sooner wedged the flashlight in his mouth and banked his foot on a crag to boost himself up than a familiar British voice rang out.
“Get to it, men. We need an accurate head count before the Twid sisters send their pixie brigade to gather up the dead.”
Jeb stepped down and almost collided with the winged netherling who had appeared from out of nowhere—as if he’d unzipped the air and slipped through. Twenty to thirty Elfin Knights filed in behind him, carrying lanterns and wearing the same uniform as Jeb, though much less frayed and dirty. They strode by without giving Jeb a second glance, too intent on the body count.
“Well, hello, pseudo knight.” Morpheus smirked.
Every part of Jeb itched to rip off his cocky grin and pound his face. But he was outnumbered. If he wanted to get out of this pit and find Al, he would have to play nice.
“I hate to say it, but it’s good to see you, Sir Morphs-a-lot.” Jeb tucked his flashlight away. “You took the mirror route, I see.”
“Glass is the only way to travel.” Morpheus held up his lantern and examined Jeb’s ruined clothes. “For one, it’s a bit kinder on the wardrobe. And I’ll let you in on another secret. By keeping my wings on that side of the plane”—he pointed a thumb at his back, where half of his appendages weren’t visible—“the opening stays accessible for our return trip.”
Jeb forced a smile. “Good to know.” Perfect, in fact. He could go back with this fairy troupe, then take the mirrored-hall express to find Al. He would have to distract Morpheus first, though—get his guard down. “So, is that a new hat?”
Morpheus practically beamed. “How kind of you to notice. It’s my Insurrection Hat. I’ve ne’er had occasion to wear it until today.” He flicked several of the scarlet moths that made up the garland on the hat’s brim, then leaned forward and cupped Jeb’s ear to muffle a secret. “Their red wings represent bloodshed,” he whispered.
“Uh-huh.” Jeb clenched his jaw at the unwelcome rush of warm breath along his earlobe. He glared at the knights, discernible only by their lanterns floating in the blackness behind him. “So you’re planning a revolt with the Ivory Queen’s army.”
Morpheus squeezed Jeb’s shoulder. “Always knew you were smarter than the average mortal.”
Jeb’s muscles twitched at the contact. “Which means you were just sending Al on a wild goose chase for your own entertainment.” Careful. He couldn’t let his distrust show. Not yet. Instead, he bent down to adjust his boot laces and took a deep breath before straightening.
Morpheus tightened his crimson necktie. “Every task I’ve asked of Alyssa has had a purpose.” He stepped to one side as someone new slipped through the mirror portal—a dwarfish skeleton with antlers and glowing pink eyes, trussed up in a red waistcoat.