"Curiouser and curiouser!"

One matchstick-thin leg dangled excitedly near Renal's knee as Alice - who stubbornly kept clinging to his back - squirmed, trying to get a better look at whatever drawn her interest right that moment.

The complex of strange gardens was a maze.

"Isn't it marvelous, mister!"

The master-thief thought about pointing out that 'curiouser' wasn't exactly the proper use of grammar - not to mention a poor choice of the word, truly - but settled for a resignated grunt instead. There were other things to be concerned with.

He refused to admit it aloud, but with her wide, startled fawn-like eyes, rosy cheeks and pealing, childish laughter, little Alice was about as creepy as the place itself.

So far, everything they have came across was funny and lovely and wonderful. Nothing seemed to bother her - not how she had snuck out of the shop and instead onto the familiar street, stepped straight in the middle of what made lunatic's inner world appear positively safe and sane; not the disgruntled stranger's company. Not the way he had promptly landed flat on his backside when Alice said she needed rest and Renal refused, not the fact he had almost choked on his own tongue when she yelled at him to shut up. The stream of curses she had let out then could have made a sailor blush.

He really didn't want to know where did she learn such words.

It was rather troubling, and even more so that only a minute later, when a frog fell dead from somewhere high above, Alice had immediately bursted into noisy sobs, snotted into his hood, and demanded to stop and bury the poor creature. While the master-thief grumbled, digging a hole in the ground, she picked flowers to make a daisy-chain to be put over the frog's place of eternal rest.

"Where does frogs go after they die, mister Bloodscalp?" - she sniffled - "Is there a heaven for amphibians?"

"I have no idea, Alice. Some, ah, bigger pond. Perhaps."

"My uncle Oliver says we will all rot and be eaten by maggots!"

Worse still, it didn't take him long to make a very unsettling connection between the girl's tantrums and-

She didn't appear to notice.

Creepy.

The maze stretched to no end with its stone walls and secret doors, obscured behind curtains of honeysuckle and ivy - rusty with age and creaking as they opened, leaving flakes of faded blue and green paint on his hands. Some were so small he could just barely squeeze through, other appeared broad like the city gates.

They led nowhere in particular. Just more gardens.

Creepier and creepier.

One was a shallow pond with the walls looming from every side, its edge a frill of white lillies, its murky waters the oppresive colour of the skyes above, warm and thick as soup. Though the water reached no more than to his hips, Renal waded through it with an extreme caution - and not only because he had expected the debris-littered bottom to have pits and falls.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star! How I wonder what you are! Twinkle, twinkle, little star..."

There were things that writhed and twisted, hidden under the pond's deceitfully calm surface.

"Twinkle, twinkle..."

Another garden was a field of glass.

Glass flowers and grasses and trees - some rounded, liquid and smooth, others viciously pointy and razor-edged, all perfectly shaped, crystalline. Fragile leaves and branches sparkled, casting dozens of tiny rainbows as they catched light; swaying gently, filling the air with eerie tinkling and scraping sounds.

"Disgusting! Indecent!" - Alice said scornfully, pointing finger over his shoulder - "Begone, you dirty whore!"

"Child, there is no one-"

Renal turned around to see the crystal woman's statue - of an admittedly lush shapes, the kind that could have given a jealous pangs to Sune herself - right as it shattered and fell to the ground.

The statue's head rolled to land neatly by his feet.

He took one involountary step back. Alice shifted, wrapped her skinny arms around his neck and, unabashed, resumed singing.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star..."

At this point, Renal concluded he was having an exeptionally idiotic dream, and that it was about the time to wake up.

"Mister Bloodscalp, what are you doing? Can I try, too?"

Renal hissed.

"No."

His fingers left scarlet trails smeared all over the glass hollyhock's blossoms, and he hurried towards the garden's end, welcoming the stone wall with an almost genuine relief. The purple sky turned cloudy, and the master-thief had a particularly nasty feeling as to the nature of rain in this place.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star!" - Alice practically shrieked into his ear - "How I wonder..."

Unsurprisingly, there was yet another garden behind the blue-painted door.

They were moving through the jungle of grasses and ferns, tall as trees. The ground was soft, sagging, and the air felt somewhat clammy, heavy with the scent of the last year's decaying leaves. It was quiet, save for occasional rustle, and full of traps - sticky, translucent treads that stretched among the greenery.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star! How I wonder what you are! Twinkle, twinkle, little star..."

Alice's voice pitched into shrill.

The master-thief wobbled, unsuccesfully trying to avoid stepping on the thread he had only noticed right under his feet. It snapped, soundlessly.

"Oh, by Mask, child. Don't you know any other songs?"

"But of course I do!" - Alice said, offended - "I know one about the cat!"

"My, what a relief... Go on then, little one. Sing about the cat. I would absolutely love to hear it."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Seven wise men with knowledge so fine! Created a pussy to their design!"

Renal nodded thoughtfully, listening. As the girl kept singing, his expression quickly started to change, shifting from relieved to incredulous, to downright terrified.

He knew the tune.

"...Fourth was a hunter, short and stout, with a piece of fox fur, he lined it without! Fifth was-"

"Alice?"

"Yes, mister Bloodscalp?"

"Alice, do tell me something." - he asked weakly - "Who taught you, ahh, this song?"

"The gardener's boy! Our cook Mrs. May calls him blasted, good-for-nothing bugger, but I think he's very funny!" - she shrugged, then peeked over his shoulder - "Mister Bloodscalp, you do look very pale indeed!"

"Do I..?"

She waved finger in his face, deep concern written all over her features.

"Yes, and I think you might benefit from using some smelling salts! That's what my dear Mamma does when she feels unhealthy! She asks our maid to bring her the smelling salts!"

"No, no! Let's go."

"Then maybe some brandy with a touch of tea and a cigar? Papa always have these straight after when Grandmother comes to visit us! Mamma doesn't approve, though!"

"I am perfectly fine."

"What about aspirin?"

"No, thank you."

"Are you sure, mister Bloodscalp?"

"Yes. But know what, Alice, on the second thought." - Renal gave her big, fake smile - "I think I liked that song about star so much better."

"Really? Oh! Wow, would you look at that! So damn large!"

The master-thief felt his skin crawl as he looked up, straight into the creature's pale, reflective eyes.

Of course.

It just had to be a spider.