Splintered Page 67

Butterfly. Ironic, that all these years Dad has called me that. Now I really am one. A trapped butterfly.

I look around again. The air down here is motionless and clammy. Judging from the sharp-cornered hedges, I’m smack in the middle of a garden labyrinth worthy of any gothic suspense novel. There are three openings branching off from here. One of them is my escape route.

Rain slams harder on the leaves overhead. I have to hurry.

Slinging the chain and reel over my shoulder and underneath my wing, I jingle a warning to the pixies for good measure—I won’t go down without a fight—then choose the opening on my right, where a soft glow radiates. I weave my way through the maze, stopping to work the chain free from underbrush each time it gets snagged.

Soon the path branches off again, this time to five options—all equally bright. I take the opening in the middle and keep moving.

Ten steps in, and I plunge through an archway, ending up where I first started. The pixies have crawled out of hiding. Their miner’s caps bounce light all around as they snicker. I glare at them and they scrabble back to the hedges, leaving oily tracks behind.

Maybe it’s time to bargain for some answers.

Taking off my belt, I wave it in front of the hedges so the dim light catches the rubies. “I’ll give this to whoever shows me the way out of the maze.”

Murmurs erupt, but no one volunteers. I plop to my knees and part the leaves at the base of the closest hedge. A set of reflective eyes peers back from the depths. The light on the creature’s cap is turned off.

“Hi.” I amp up the charm, trying to be diplomatic like I was with the ferret creature at Morpheus’s banquet. It’s not easy when the subject smells like rotting meat. I thread the belt through the leaves, letting the pixie see the jewels up close. “Pretty, right?”

It yanks the belt out of my hand and dons the accessory like a scarf. Petting the sparkly rubies, it purrs.

“Do you know why Sister One wants me here?” I ask.

The pixie blinks its long lashes demurely. Its eyelids are vertical, closing side to side like stage curtains before snapping open again. Just plain freaky.

“Usses usn’t know,” it murmurs.

“Okay.” I can buy that. “But Sister Two doesn’t want me here, right?”

The creature shudders in answer.

“Then help me get out, and the big bad sister will never know. You won’t get strung up that way. Make sense?”

The pixie nods. “Uses the ee-kay, sparkly talkeress,” it whispers before withdrawing deeper into the leaves.

“The key?” I ask aloud. He can’t mean the one Jeb left in the rabbit hole door. But what other key is there?

In my dream, Morpheus called my birthmark a key when he showed me how to open the diamond tree.

I shove my wings out of the way to sit down, peel off both my boots, and wiggle my toes, rubbing the swollen arches of my feet. I’ve been wearing platforms for way too long. Two days straight now. Is that right?

I can’t remember.

Frowning, I roll up the leggings on my left leg until I see the birthmark. I’m reminded of how my skin reacted to Jeb’s touch when he caressed my ankle in the living room. And then how it felt in that moment Morpheus pressed his flesh to mine to heal me.

Jeb is stable, strong, and genuine—my knight in shining armor. Morpheus is selfish, unreliable, and transcendent—chaos incarnate. Impossible to compare.

Yet here I am, all of those things. Both light and dark at the same time. If I were to give in to one side of me, would that mean I’d have to give up the other? My heart aches at the possibility. Somehow I feel like I need both to be complete.

I study the birthmark and shut down any other thoughts. It’s possible that this is a map of the maze I’m in. The pigmentation follows a continuous right curve and winds into itself. Assuming I’m in the very middle of the maze, I’ll need to take left turns to get out again.

Unless I’m looking at the thing upside down.

Disorientation makes my head spin. The feeling of being trapped constricts my chest again. I stand, holding my boots by their laces in one hand and the chain and reel in the other. If I just keep going left, I’ll end up somewhere eventually. I hope . . .

“You guys coming?” I ask the pixies. As strange as they are, their company comforts me. Leaves rattle from behind when I start through the left opening. I step wide to avoid prickly patches in the ground cover. My companions follow in my footsteps, little lights bobbing, and I imagine how comical our caravan must look. If Jeb were here, he’d come up with some funny nickname for the pixies.

My smile at the thought is bittersweet. Just be okay, Jeb. I’m coming.

It’s too quiet with only the rain pattering above us, and I consider talking to my pixie companions, maybe even the hedges. Silence isn’t all I once thought it would be. Throughout most of my adolescent life, I tried to shut out the bugs and plants, longing to fit in. But I’m starting to think I might need those other voices in order to fit into my own skin. In order to be myself.

I feel the same way about my wings . . .

I flew.

I. Flew.

I wasn’t afraid. I was in control, strong, free. Alive.

As if in response to my thoughts, my left wing droops down and butts me in the head. I push it behind me, then spin on my heel to walk backward, studying my companions. “Why is it the longer I’m here, the more I feel like I belong?” I ask them.

They slow their steps but don’t answer. The one wearing the belt as a scarf smiles a gruesome smile, and thirty-some other pairs of metallic eyes glitter back curiously beneath their caps.

Morpheus’s remark about Alice’s lost childhood niggles like a dripping faucet in my head. Two things don’t add up: Alice’s claim that she’d been held captive in a cage for all those years, and the missing birthmark when she was an old woman. Morpheus is hiding something. If only I had time to stop and reason it out.

A distant thrum of thunder spins me around again. I’ve lost count of how many leftward turns my entourage and I have taken, but this path seems longer than any other. I stop at an archway—the tallest and brightest I’ve seen. It has to be the way out.

The pixies’ mining lights disappear into the hedges. It doesn’t matter if they come or not. Nothing’s stopping me from leaving this place.

My determination falters the minute I step through the archway. The boots, chain, and reel slip out of my hands, clunking to the path beneath me.

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