Splintered Page 70

“I don’t want to belong here.” The stuffed atrocities in her hand cause fresh dread to bubble up in my chest. I step backward and nearly slip on the snow. Spreading my wings low, I catch my balance. “Well, ye won’t. So long as ye’re still breathing.”

“Right,” I answer, gasping to assure myself I am.

“It’s when ye stop breathing that ye’re mine.” Her scissors rake my sleeve’s shoulder seam. “Once I cut out yer lungs, ye’ll belong then.”

Self-preservation kicks in, and I back up two more steps, breaking through a curtain of branches to get closer to the trunk of the tree. Heavy with decrepit toys, the limbs bow over me almost to the ground, like a morbid parasol dimming the light.

Sister Two’s silhouette moves on the other side, scuttling around the circumference. Taking strained breaths, I turn with her, keeping her in my sight through openings between branches.

The instant she parts the curtain to come inside, I fold my wings around me, watching through a translucent shell.

She laughs—a grinding, hollow sound. “The pretty butterfly is now the cocoon. Isn’t that backward from the natural way of things?” As if anything is natural here. I ease against the tree trunk to protect my back.

The point of her blades nudge the juncture where my wings hide my windpipe. Even through the gossamer layers I can feel the cold metal compressing my air passage.

“Ah, yer wings are yet young. Thin as paper. I can chop them into little pieces and dance in yer confetti. Face me, or suffer that fate.” She steps back. Considering how much it hurt just to step on my wings earlier, I let them fall to my sides and stand against the tree trunk.

Smiling, she snips at the air in front of my face, blowing sharp wisps around me. “Now. Ye’ve stolen something from me. Give it back, or I’ll bleed ye like a pig until ye squeal.”

“I haven’t stolen anything!”

The scissor-like tips drag down to my abdomen, trailing a chilling line through my clothes. Wings folded around either side of the trunk, my spine grinds into the icy bark and my stomach rolls over. Her face leans closer—a bloody and horrific sight. “Tell me what ye did with Chessie’s smile.” Snip, and a strand of red lace falls from my tunic onto my bare feet.

My heart nearly stops. “I—I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Liar.” Snip, snip, and a rain of tattered fabric gathers around me as my baby-doll tunic peels open at my waist, leaving only my blouse covering me. “Yer lungs have to be in here somewhere,” she says, digging around the fabric.

Growling, I jut out a knee, knocking her hoop skirt lopsided and unbalancing her. Her eight legs regroup before I can escape, and she rams forward until our noses touch.

The cold, sharp point of her blade crimps the bare skin above my throat. “I know why ye’re here. Ye seek the next square. The one that will win ye the crown.”

Square? Crown? My mind bounces back and forth, caught between confusion and the will to live. I swallow, and the tip of the shears bites deeper into my skin. “No,” I whisper, slipping my fingers around her bladed hand to alleviate the pressure. I push against her. “I won’t make this easy for you.”

“Good. I like a challenge.” Her bumpy tongue rakes over her lips as she snakes the blades toward my sternum, pushing harder against my resistance. “Less’n ye wish to watch me hull out yer heart like a nut’s meat, ye will tell me where ye hid the smile . . . now.” I close my eyes, willing my erratic pulse to calm, to become steady and confident. There’s only one way out of this. Only one thing I can rely upon.


I envision the branches around us filling with rabid sap—a snarling, feral energy sweeping through each branch. The movement jostles the toys awake, and they let out a mournful howl. Every branch on every tree across the lair joins in and twists, restless spirits awakened and angry.

“Devil’s child!” Sister Two screeches and lifts her scissored hand to stab me. Trapped between her and the tree, I scream and raise my arms to protect myself from the blow.

The doll I roused earlier swoops between us and grabs the shears, wrestling Sister Two.

Seeing my chance, I break through the swaying branches. Snarling toys claw at me as I make my way out, tugging my hair and wings. I burst through and sprint for the entrance, colliding with Sister One. She shoves me behind her as her twin crashes out of the tree, a bloodthirsty scowl on her marred face. “Move out of my way! The little thief is mine.”

“Wait!” Sister One says, out of breath. “I took the smile!” I wither in relief, panting and slumped against the back of her hoop skirt.

“What do ye mean, ye took it?” Sister Two asks. “Ye’re not to touch my wards!” She waves the stuffed toys in her good hand, effectively stilling the trees all around us as the spirits cower in fear. “Morpheus gave an oath,” the good twin explains. “If I should help the girl get into the garden and cross off the last two squares, he’ll relinquish the moth spirits into my keep.”

“Ye never use any sense, nohow!” the murderous sister screeches.

“I told ye to stay out of it. It be none of our concern.”

“Contrary that! We must have the spirits. One spirit in exchange for a thousand. ’Tis fair price to keep the dead contained here, so they’ll not possess the living. ’Tis our sworn purpose, after all!” Sister One pushes me through the archway back into the labyrinth. “Where ye be taking her?” Sister Two asks, her blue eyes aglow with suspicion and fury.

“To the looking glass.” Sister One cups my elbow and leads me down the path. I nearly slip once in the snow, but she steadies me.

“She yet has a game to win. And you have a queen to catch.” Sister Two follows, her eight legs sifting through the powder as her long skirt leaves drag marks behind her. “What mean ye by that?” “Queen Red has escaped her slumber. She’s on the loose and restless. Best to hurry before she finds a way to the castle.” Having said that, Sister One guides me back into the maze, leaving her twin screaming in outrage. The spirits join the tantrum, wailing once more. I shut it all out. Queen Red was dead and imprisoned, but now she’s on the loose. That means I released the witch who put a curse on my family nearly a century ago. What will she do to us now that she’s free? “Will you be able to find her?” I ask, swallowing against the knot in my larynx.

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