Splintered Page 84

“Do you want her for your own?”

“So very much—” His voice breaks.

“Then do my bidding. She’ll be yours physically, and there the heart

and soul will follow in time. You can romance your way into her good graces. You shall have forever to win her.”

The expression on Morpheus’s face is torn between longing and a struggle for honor. The gems bejeweling his eyes flash from pink to purple. “Forever to win her.” He’s almost in a trance. He crouches to lift the crown but stops.

“Oh, for Fennine’s sake! If you’re too weak to hand it over, simply leave. The girl’s only remaining strong because you’re giving her hope. Begone, and I’ll overpower her. I shall get the crown for myself.”

Morpheus stands, takes one last lingering look at me, then starts for the door.

A cry erupts from my throat as I reclaim my voice. “That’s it? You got what you want, and now you’re going to turn your back on me like you did Alice? You’ll leave me to my cage of ivy? Why not? It can’t be any worse than living in a straitjacket, and you’ve forced enough girls into those.”

He pauses, midstep.

“Don’t listen to her! She will be yours to hold and cherish within the hour. You can kiss her tears away, make all her pain a distant memory.”

As if in slow motion, he resumes walking, broad shoulders tense and wings low.

“You made a vow!” I screech, wrestling for control of my mind. “Not to leave me heartbroken and hurt again! You’ll lose everything!”

Morpheus stalls at the threshold, his back turned and head hanging down. “I would give up all my powers to have you in my arms. Your love is the only magic I need.”

Red forces me forward a step . . . then two.

“I’ll be a corpse in your bed!” I try to get through to him, one last time. “You’re killing everything that makes me who I am. The girl you taught, your playmate . . . the one you claim to love will be gone, with a puppet in her place.”

The leafy veins in my legs jerk on another unwanted step as if in demonstration.

Just as Morpheus reaches his hand to unbar the door, Red snaps out her vines and reaches the crown.

“Good-bye, Alyssa,” my one last hope says, his wings drooping in resignation. “I’m afraid neither of us is strong enough to defeat her.”

“We’ll see about that, Morpheus,” I hiss back, then turn my attention to the vines possessing me.

I’m done letting everyone else dictate what happens to my life. I’d rather be dead than an eternal pawn.

Exerting the last of my will, I force my hands to grip the vines that are dragging the crown toward me. Slamming to my knees, I tug against the ivy, holding it taut where it joins my skin. Queen Red’s scream rattles my brain. She drops the crown to concentrate on me. Her ivy winds around my palms and fingers until they’re covered with leafy mittens. She forces my arms together and binds them and follows with my legs and torso, incapacitating me just like the flowers did on the beginning of my journey, except the pain can’t compare. Any struggle against her shackles makes each bone in my body feel like it’s going to crack.

The only way to stop hurting is to go limp . . . give up. She’s won. I’m finished . . . I close my eyes and whimper.

I think of Jeb, Jenara, my mom and dad—all having to pick up their lives without me. It pierces my heart with a pain more acute than anything I’ve ever felt. And I’m glad for it. The intensity of the emotion proves I’m still alive . . . that I’m an individual. That I’m me.

Red has my body, but she doesn’t control my heart or mind yet. That’s where my magic lies.

Three of the elfin knight corpses lie only feet away. One’s arm is severed, one’s neck is buckled, and the other has a twisted leg, all from their encounter with the bandersnatch. They might be broken, but I can still use them.

Concentrating on their bodies, I picture them alive: Their brains become computers, hardwired to my thoughts; their hearts made of putty, pumping in time with my own; their legs and arms are pliant like pipe cleaners, moving on my command.

Shaky and awkward, they stand. Limping and swaying, they drag themselves toward me. Their fingers clamp around the vines and heave against Queen Red.

My ivy cocoon unwinds, spinning me on the ground. The vines grow taut at my ankles, wrists, and hands, where they’re joined with my body. The knights continue to heave with all their weight and the vines rip my skin on the way out, like electric cords being jerked from a plasterboard wall. A knife-sharp pain guts me—a rotary blade hacking through my organs.

I gurgle a scream and strangle on the taste of blood, losing control of my macabre marionettes. They droop, almost releasing their hold on the vines. Driven by the desire to be free, I command the knights to yank harder.

Crimson streams spurt from my wounds and puddle on the floor. I grit my teeth, using my body’s anguish to drive me, to give my creations the strength to fight until they’ve ripped Red out, until she’s connected only to my fingertips by a tangle of weeds.

I collapse, and my trio of knights crumple into a pile, inanimate and dead again.

I’m so weak, I barely realize Morpheus is at my side. Vorpal sword in hand, he severs the leafy stems from my fingers, then slashes the vines away. Another piercing screech jars my skull as Morpheus works off the crown and hairpin to disconnect me completely from my puppeteer.

Without a body to inhabit, Red’s spirit writhes in the ivy on the ground, dying like a mass of eels out of water.

Morpheus tucks the vorpal sword away in his jacket. I slump in a fetal position, drained of blood and energy. My wrists and ankles gape open, a thousand times worse than the wounds that slashed across my palms as a child. I wonder if I’m dying . . .

A black haze dims my surroundings.

“Brave, stubborn girl,” Morpheus whispers into my ear as he tenderly cradles me in his arms, lifting my body. “You were the only one who could free yourself of her possession and win the crown. I knew you would be victorious. All you needed was a push to anger. And who better to drive you to the edge of fury than me?”

“Liar,” I mumble, swimming in nausea and coughing up blood. My arms and legs feel weighted, and sticky streams ooze out of the gouges in my skin. “You left me.”

“I’m still here, aren’t I?” Morpheus guides me down beside Ivory and exposes her birthmark, touching it to mine. Heat flashes along my body. “I’ve always believed in your power. For the queen I saw in you even as a child . . . for the woman you could never see in yourself. My faith is as unchanging as my age.”

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