Splintered Page 79

As the opening widens, our shadows blot out the light in front of us. Still, I can see that the roof stretches almost as high as the one at Underland, and the room is twice the size of the massive skating bowl. A smattering of windows lines the top quarter of the domed ceiling to coax in a filmy silver haze, just enough light to differentiate between outlines and shadows but not to see anything clearly.

I have a vague sense of the layout from Morpheus’s description. A thick chain binds the bandersnatch to the back wall. It’s long enough to allow him access to his pen and the radius of the stage that holds the crown and sword, but that’s the extent of his range. This allows the bandersnatch’s keepers to toss in food from the doorway while staying out of reach of his tongues. My eyes adjust so I can make out the shape of the stage. There’s a podium centered in the middle and a hole carved within it. A light is tucked inside the stem, allowing a beam of soft yellow to radiate up from the center into the glass case on top, a gentle beacon in the darkness. Inside, a red crown and a shimmery silver blade are nestled on a plush pillow. From where we stand, the weapon looks as small as the fillet knife Dad uses when he prepares fresh-caught fish; the blade and handle can’t be more than eight inches long. It’s more like a knife than a sword.

A heavy chain drags on the floor somewhere in the pool of darkness behind the stage. Snuffles fill the air, then escalate to a low, spine-guttering growl.

Dark dread knots in my throat. Morpheus steps farther into the room, urging me behind him. My mind screams for me to turn back and run. Instead, I force myself to follow. The guards and knights sidle along the walls, backs pressed to the stone, spears and swords drawn, for all the good that will do. A bandersnatch’s hide is indestructible. If the creature attacks, their only hope will be to wound his tongues and buy themselves time to escape.

Morpheus and I creep within inches of the stage. Gripping the bow, I wait for my cue . . . heart pounding. The bandersnatch must hear my pulse, because he lashes out a tongue to investigate. The slimy, snakelike appendage slithers by, leaving a glistening streak of mucus in its wake.

Morpheus’s wings fold around me, and together we sidestep the tongue as it backtracks. Knuckles pressed against Morpheus’s back, I feel his muscles straining.

“Easy, Chess old boy . . . easy,” he whispers. He’s wrestling more than fear. He’s wrestling the cat’s eager spirit. Chessie must sense his other half and is struggling to get to it.

We reach the stage, and Morpheus hoists me up in my awkward gown at the same instant the bandersnatch lumbers out of the darkness and into a splash of moonlight. One of the card guards along the wall gasps, and the creature staggers in his direction, as clumsy and erratic as a boxcar derailed from its train—except three times bigger.

Tense, Morpheus edges us toward the glass box on the podium. The beast jerks its head in our direction, chain jangling. We freeze, hand in hand.

Milky white eyes pass over me, unable to focus. Nothing could’ve prepared me for what I’m seeing: a rhino’s gray hide, pitted and bulging, head triangular and feline with fangs, like a reptilian sabertoothed tiger. The creature’s giant lizard legs bow outward, and its spiked tail whips from side to side as he cocks his head. One of the elfin knights makes a clucking sound for a diversion. Snarling, the bandersnatch turns in that direction, drool lagging like shoestrings from his muzzle.

Morpheus eases his grip on my hand when we come to the glass case, and he hands me the teddy bear. He slips a key into a brass lock on the front, wriggling it to trigger the mechanism. On some kind of instinctual reflex, my wings flutter. I wince and meet Morpheus’s concerned gaze, but it’s too late.

The movement snaps the bandersnatch’s attention back to me and he roars—his putrid breath rushing over us with all the heat, thunder, and wetness of a wicked summer storm. No longer under the protection of Morpheus’s wings, I scream in response, almost turning my lungs inside out.

Morpheus shoves me behind him as three tongues lunge toward us. At the ends of each appendage, a snakelike face opens toothless jaws and hisses. They’re like giant eels, though not nearly as peaceful and charming as my pets at home. Every drop of saliva evaporates from my mouth as one tongue comes within inches of Morpheus’s face. He ducks, but the tongues snap back, winding around his ankles and waist. They topple him to his knees and drag him to the edge of the stage.


I want to believe I’m only worried for my wish. But seeing him captured awakens that child who once loved him. Racked with terror, she pushes her way out of the recesses of my heart, casts off the cello’s bow, then launches me forward to reach for him. I land on my stomach in a pool of fetid slime, hoop skirt bubbling above me. “Take my hands!” I stretch my arms and lace his fingers with mine, but he pries them away.

“No, Alyssa! The test! Get the vorpal sword . . . free the smile—”

The tongues lug him offstage and toward the slobbering mouth. His wings wither against his back, caught up in the appendage wrapped around his waist. His hat flutters to the ground.

I struggle to stand with the contraption beneath my skirts, rocking back and forth until momentum gives me ground. As soon as I’m on my feet, I spin around and lift the glass lid. The vorpal sword’s handle feels warm even through my gloves. Everywhere I touch, I leave prints glowing blue on the silver metal.

A shout draws my attention back to the fight. Graceful and lethal, the elfin knights catapult onto the bandersnatch’s back, hacking away at its hide with their swords in vain. The card guards spring into action. They perform elaborate feats of acrobatic skill to build a card tower above the beast’s head. Then they topple and prick at his tongues with their spears on the way down.

Their combined efforts help Morpheus escape the tongue at his waist. He dives to the floor, flapping his wings for leverage against the other two appendages still on his ankles. The bandersnatch thrashes. The card guards flutter like leaves caught in wind and slap against the walls. The beast bucks again, toppling three of the elves. They hit the floor, knocked out cold, swords spinning next to them with grating sounds.

Urgency surges through me. Fingers clamped on the vorpal sword’s handle, I gut the teddy bear’s stomach seam. Stuffing bulges and parts as something struggles to push its way out.

Morpheus wails. The knights and card guards litter the floor, all of them either unconscious, wounded, or dead. Eelish and slimy, the tongues writhe against Morpheus, holding him upside down. The bandersnatch’s lower jaw unhinges and widens to a chasm, preparing to swallow his prey whole.

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