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"Wren?" I shout, but the small child does not turn to us, does not even cast a glance over her shoulder. She walks straight into the forest and is instantly lost from view.
I shout her name again, rushing toward the tree line, but Cole's grip is no longer gentle, his voice is no longer a suggestion.
"No, Lexi. It's not her. Something's wrong." The wind is still growing, but the music is gone, and now it's just howling and angry. Cole winces, turning his head away from the source of the sound, the forest. I twist free and make it several feet, almost close enough to touch a half-broken branch that juts into the clearing, when it happens. A dozen crows erupt from the canopy of the forest, bursting from the jagged line of trees, blacker than the night and screaming in their raspy tones. The wind sings along with the words in my head.
A dozen crows perched on the low stone wall.
Cole and I step back together. Cold comes over me, nerve-bristling. I hear branches cracking. Dead branches on the forest floor, snapping beneath the weight of something. Someone. I manage to take another step back and so does Cole, and we are caught somewhere between the need to flee and a horrible curiosity that digs into our bones and slows them down. My sister might be in that forest. I cannot run. I cannot leave her. But something else is in the forest, too. Something is making the branches crack, the shape of it drawing closer and closer through the trees. And then I see it.
Five white lines curl around a thin tree near the front of the forest. I gasp. Finger bones. Fear wins a little and I slide back a few feet. Two glistening circles hover just behind the narrow tree, like river rocks. The finger bones release their hold on the tree and reach forward, out toward me. And as they do, as they graze the open air of the small valley, they grow moss. Dirt and weeds coil around the bones like muscle and flesh, sinewy and slick. Cole reaches me, putting himself between me and the woods. The shimmering circles slip forward, and they are indeed river rocks, set like lifeless eyes into a face of moss. A woman's face. Just beneath the eyes, the earthy skin tugs itself apart, and the woman hisses. She opens her mouth, and what comes out at first aren't words at all but wind, and a raspy hint of voice, as if her throat is clogged with dirt.
The branches snap beneath her bare moss feet as she steps forward from the glowing woods. She breathes out and the wind picks up hard enough to bend everything down, to make the world bow. The grass presses flat to the earth, and even the forest seems to lean. I can't hear anything but the white noise of it and the witch's voice.
"Don't you dare," she hisses...
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