The arachnoid's jaws opened and closed with an unpleasant, screeching sound.

It smelled of carrion.

Renal considered the nearest escape route, but didn't move. He couldn't - his legs seemed to become permamently fixed to the ground, knees soft and jelly-like.

"You look a little green on the face, mister Bloodscalp!" - Alice remarked.

"Huh." - the master-thief said, watching a thick glog of saliva that dropped from the spider's mouth.

It sizzled, scorching the greenery at the creature's legs. The girl didn't appear to notice.

"In fact, mister, I still insist you should have taken the smelling salts!"

"Why, yes." - he mumbled - "Surely enough, I would benefit from taking the smelling salts. Nothing better than smelling salts to solve all the problems, and especially in a situation like this. I like lavender. And then, maybe-"

"Then let us go get them!" - Alice said cheerfully - "You will see, you will feel so much better!"

She climbed down onto the ground and took a two steps toward the eight-legged beast.

"Alice, don't-"

Renal broke off, watching the girl approach the spider, then swallowed loudly. Maybe it would be satisfied with her. She looked well cared for, even though a bit skinny, and if the creature-

"Excuse me, mister Spider!" - Alice curtseyed, adressing it politely - "Please, would you be so kind and perhaps move just a little? My friend, mister Bloodscalp, feels unwell! Could we pass?"

The spider's jaw moved, gurgling as it stooped; the master-thief bit on his lip, hard - he didn't want to watch the outcome.

Alice merely frowned, pointing finger into its eyes.

"It was very rude thing to say, mister Spider! I was only asking, no need for this kind of language! More so!" - she continued, frown on her face deepening - "My dear Mamma would have me wash my mouth with a soap for that, but you do not appear to brush your teeth at all!"

More gurgling and sizzling.

Renal felt a hysterical laughter bubble at the back of his throat; Alice's fists clenched and she huffed indignantly.

"No, no, no! That was enough of your impundence, mister Spider! Go back to whatever hell-hole you have crawled from, right now!"

The spider screeched as the tip of the girl's shoe struck it in the face, and hastily retreated among the web-entangled ferns.

The master-thief stood there with his jaw slack. He had seen compulsive spells at work on various occasions, but none of them quite so powerful.

The girl had an innate ability to will just about anything into reality, and yet, she still had no idea about it.

All the better, he decided.

"Serves you well!" - Alice called after the spider, long after it was gone - "Die roaring, you ugly bastard!"

Air reverberated with a distant, pained shriek.

Renal supressed a shudder, and smiled instead; he needed to strike whilst the iron was still hot.

"Alice?" - he cleared his throat - "Tell me something. What is it you would like to do in the future?"

The girl pursed her lips, thinking, then beamed at him.

"I want to marry a nice gentleman like Papa, and have children, and a big pretty house with a garden, and a cook, and a-"

He needed to be very, very patient.

"I, ah, didn't mean that. I was thinking about, umm, a career opportunities? A smart girl like you should..."

Renal fervently hoped he managed to play it out right, seeing as at the end of his rushed explanation Alice's eyes were a bit more fawn-like, rounder, and brighter than before.

"A highwayman?" - she squeaked - "And we would rob the well-off to give the less fortunate, just like Robin Hood and Little John? It is what you do, is it not?"

The master-thief had never heard of neither - actually, it reminded him of an annoying wench he's stumbled upon earlier today, the one who watched him as he rested nursing his bruised knee and crammed a coin in his hand while spouting some nonsense about the need of reliving the common folk's hardships - but nodded eagerly.

"Yes. Exactly. I rob the rich and share the coin with the, ahh, men." - he coughed - "The poor lads."

"I never was anyone's apprentice before! How lovely!" - the girl hopped up and down in excitment - "Does it mean you will call me Kitty and I can call you uncle?"

"Of course. Kitty."

Alice let out another overjoyed squeak, wrapping arms around his waist. Renal gritted his teeth, refusing to go off the smile, now painfully tugging at the corners of his lips.

He needed to be patient and polite and nice.

"It's going to be great, uncle Bloodscalp!"

They continued through the overgrown lane, toward the garden's gate - the girl seated on his back again and babbling incessantly, the master-thief doing his best to tune her out.

It was snowing behind it; landscape a winter wonderland with firs and yews swooping under the white blanket, icicles that hung from their branches sharp and glistening with the last of the sunrays, the shadows lying thick on the ground .

There were no other footprints than their own on a virgin snow.

Renal couldn't think of the one possibly worse moment to discover that the girl's talent had its limitations.

"Kitty, d-do focus and try-y-y again. P-p-please? For me?"

"I wa-want to go t-to Athkatla!"

Nothing happened.

The sky was still purple-grey, alien. It was absolutely freezing, dry, crisp air biting viciously at bare skin, and even Alice seemed to loose her cheer; the only sound leaving her mouth was that of teeth chattering.

The master-thief stumbled around half-blind, unable to find as much as the garden's walls in a blizzard - the path he tried to keep to long gone from his sight, the ancient wood closing in - dark, unfriendly and silent.

"Are we going to die?" - Alice asked - "Our maid told me her second cousin went out for a walk in the new year's eve, and they had only found him in the spring, and he was all blue and rotten, with crows and ravens pecking at-"

"I'd rather avoid that."

The girl was a limp weight on his back, and sounded as if she was dozing off, too tired for exclamations.

"Kitty, don't sleep."

"Uhm."

"If you fall asleep, I will dump you under the tree and leave you all alone."

"You wouldn't do that, uncle Bloodscalp."

"Oh, but believe me, I would, and-"

Renal let out a muffled 'oww' as his boot got caught under some hidden root. He fell forward, droping the girl and landing in a snowdrift.

"Beshaba's curse."

Alice got up first, shaking the white flakes off her dress and coming to stand over him, eyes wide awake from the shock.

"Is that so? But you promised we are going to be rich and famous!" - she said, pouting and stomping her foot - "You can't leave me here! I want to be a highwayman, and a hero, and a princess! And-"

Crack.

The skyes above shattered and burst with an ear-splitting noise, raining purple shards that, somehow, half-way to the ground morphed into leaves - first shimmering in all colours of the rainbow, then settling down to an amber, russet and brilliant scarlet.

Carefully, the master-thief opened one eye.

It wasn't winter anymore.

Light filtering through the tree's canopy was a soft, hazy glow of the harvest-month, the sun still high against the deep blue backdrop. He looked around, taking in the dusty road, brambles on the roadside heavy with fruit, patches of heather under the silver-barked birches, birds rustling and chirping among the branches.

The surroundings - even as unfamiliar as they still were - looked surprisingly, refreshingly normal.

There was creaking of a wagon's wheels coming from afar, beyond the road's bend - accompanied by the clatter of horse hooves, and a sound of what appeared to be a singing contest.

Something crunched under his feet as he stood up.

Renal lifted it with a frown, sharp edges grazing his fingers. A broken bauble - remnants of a glass dome - with bits of glitter shaped like a tiny snowflakes stuck inside, a miniature cut-out conifers, a picture of-

It was just too much.

"Uncle Bloodscalp, what are you laughing at?"