Page 9

 A.G. Howard

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I never will be.
I’m a few steps from the door when one clap of Morpheus’s leather-clad palms stops me in my tracks.
A sinister rustle grows around me, like leaves raking across graves. I turn, but not fast enough. Vines climb my legs, twisting tight. My calf muscles cramp under the pressure. Using my underdeveloped netherling magic, I try to influence the plants. The ivy pulses but refuses to release.
“A shame you’ve neglected your better side for so long,” Morpheus baits me as he steps closer. “If you practiced more often, it would be second nature for you to relax … easier for you to coax your powers into submission.”
I growl. My top half is still free, so I throw a punch at him, nailing his abs. He oofs, but his sneer doesn’t waver. With one nod from him, the daisy that I used for a prop earlier reaches out and clamps my elbows. Her hands, both humanoid and plantlike, lock me tight. When I struggle, she hisses a warning.
Biting back a frustrated yelp, I meet Morpheus’s fathomless black eyes. “I want to go home.”
He fusses with his shirt, smoothing where my fist wrinkled it. “Keep ignoring your responsibilities and you won’t have a home left.”
I shake my head. “How many times do I have to say it? My home is in the human realm, not here.” A half lie. I can’t bear to look again at the destruction all around me. But he doesn’t have to see how torn I am … how torn I’ve been since last year.
“What makes you think I was referring to here?” He leans against a nasturtium stem. The pose shouldn’t be threatening, but his wings rise behind him, black and looming against the storm’s backdrop, and my skin bristles with apprehension. I try to free my elbows. The daisy is too strong. Even through my long sleeves, her frondlike fingers bite into my flesh.
“I demand to see Queens Grenadine and Ivory,” I say.
Morpheus barks a laugh. “You 'demand'? So you’re playing the royal card, aye?”
My chest tightens. “The queens are in charge of the portals to my home, not you.”
“Oh, but therein lies the problem. Parts of Wonderland have already fallen into Red’s clutches, and she intends to reclaim your throne and overthrow Ivory so she might be in charge of both portals. By your absence and apathy, you’re giving the witch free rein. You know what a powerless and forgetful fool your substitute, Grenadine, is.”
Lightning strikes again, coating everything in eerie light.
The mud beneath me starts to soften, and I sink an inch, then two. I’ve triggered one of his black moods. That’s never good. “You’re lying.”
“The truth is in the blood. Is your artwork lying?”
I want to lash out at him for spying on me at school, but it won’t change the fact that he’s right. Even though I can’t decipher the violent scenes in my blood mosaics, I can make out enough to know that something is wrong in this world. And that maybe Queen Red is behind it.
My body wavers in the mud. I’m sinking even deeper—literally and figuratively.
The daisy releases me from her scratchy grip, and the vines suck me down farther. Cold, gooey sludge squishes up around my shins. I rotate at the waist to plead with the giant flower. “You’re my friend. Last time I was here, we played cards, remember? Don’t let him do this …”
Still silent, the daisy turns her hundreds of eyes toward Morpheus, as if awaiting his instructions.
“Did you forget, Alyssa? The solitary of our kind are loyal to no one but themselves—or the highest bidder.” Morpheus steps closer so the toes of his boots are at the edge of the sinkhole. I’m face-to-face with his thighs but can’t quite reach him. “You’d do well to reacquaint yourself with their true nature. It might remind you of your own.” He claps his hands, twice this time.
As far as I can see in every direction, the flower forest rises, the plants ripping their gargantuan stems from the mud. Leafy arms and legs appear. In the center of each blossom, mouths widen, moaning, to reveal clear, jagged teeth. Their roots, moving like serpents, propel them forward. Soon I’m surrounded by row upon row of blinking eyes.
My heart trips in my chest. The mutants weren’t dormant and weak at all … they were lying in wait—a trap prepped to spring.
Their roots wind through the mud, and they slide in to share my grave, their stemlike bodies pressing tight—imprisoning me in layers of mossy leaves and petals. I writhe as my arms press against my torso, my biceps digging into my ribs. With the added weight of the flower army around me, I sink another six inches into the mud, now eye level with Morpheus’s shins. A flicker of claustrophobia resurfaces. I stifle it, remembering who I am. How I escaped from here once before.
“Oh, come on.” My voice sounds steadier than I feel. “If Red couldn’t trap me as her puppet, do you really think you have a chance to hold me hostage in a cage of algae?”
One of the flowers hisses, offended by the insult.
Lightning blinks across the sky, and Morpheus cocks his head. “You are no one’s puppet, plum. You are, however, a hostage. Although you seem confused as to who holds your chains.” He crouches, his nose only inches from mine. “I’ve been very patient.” Gloved knuckles glide across my jaw and down my neck. The jewels under his eyes shimmer to an impassioned violet. “But we no longer have the luxury of time. Red has seen to that.”
I try to block out how my skin responds to his touch, actually drawing toward him, like hairs rising on an electric current. Pinned in place as I am, all I can do is jerk my head to break contact.
Leaning back on his haunches, Morpheus narrows his eyes. “Release the chains you’ve put on yourself. Reclaim your crown and free the netherling madness within you.”
“No. I chose to be human.” Bile burns my tongue as the mud pulls me deeper, as if I were a mouse being ingested by a snake. The sludge rises to my chest, then my throat—a suffocating sensation. I wonder how far he plans to take this bluff.
He drops to his stomach on the ground, wings glimmering like puddles of oil beside him—looking just like he used to as a mischievous child. Chin propped on the back of his fist, he studies me. “I shall not beg. Not even for you, my precious queen.”
A sharp gust of wind slices through us, knocking his hat off. He snatches the brim before it flies into the cracked sky.