Ensnared Page 26

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Chessie arches his back, then turns his impish eyes my way.

“Sneakie-deakie.” I can’t stop smiling, remembering that moment when Uncle Bernie closed the Gravitron’s door and orange sparkles filtered into the chamber. Chessie was planning to hitch a ride all along.

The little netherling attempts to fly, but I stop him, closing my fingers over Morpheus’s palm. “Wait. There are rules here. If you use your magic, you’ll hurt yourself. It will mutate you . . . kill you even.”

“True for most,” Morpheus corrects, and lifts my hand away. “But remember, our Chessie is a rare strain. Both spirit and flesh all at once. He can use his magic. He’s the one full-blood netherling who can.”

“Other than you, you mean?” I goad.

Morpheus intentionally avoids my stare and concentrates on Chessie. “You should refrain from snapping your head off whilst here. With the way the landscape changes, you might risk it getting lost. Now, do you wish to fly, or would you like to hitch a ride?”

Chessie flutters up to Morpheus’s one remaining pocket and deposits himself inside, leaving only his head sticking out.

Before Morpheus can move away, I place a hand on his lapel.

Stretching to the tips of my toes, I nuzzle Chessie’s fuzzy nose with mine. “Thanks for healing me earlier,” I tell him, “and for keeping my necklace safe.” Just as I’m about to kiss his head, he ducks into the pocket.

My lips land in the middle of one of the gaps in Morpheus’s shirt, smacking his warm, soft skin.

“Sorry.” Blushing, I jerk back and lose balance as the ground beneath me totters.

Morpheus catches me around the waist, affection tinting his jewels a pinkish hue. “No apology necessary.”

Dad clears his throat. I swallow, stepping away.

“We need to get a move on.” Dad gathers the duffel bag and shoves the map at Morpheus. “Where’s Jeb, according to this?”

Still intent on me, Morpheus shoves the parchment away without even looking at it. “That scrap won’t get you anywhere. The landscape is unpredictable, if you didn’t notice. Whoever provided that map should’ve told you that. Perhaps, having limited human intellect, they can’t comprehend the magnitude of said alterations.”

My dad frowns. “We were told that the gates’ positions never change. I can see their glow, there and there.” He motions to the radioactive green waves on the distant horizon to our right and left.

Sighing, Morpheus turns his attention to Dad. “All right. Riddle me this. Which is north and which is south? Do you know from whence direction you arrived? It is impossible to keep from getting turned around in this world without a compass.”

“And you have such a compass?” Dad asks.

“I have my walking stick,” Morpheus answers cryptically.

Dad clenches his teeth. “So you expect us to just follow you.”

Morpheus’s lips curl to a spiteful grin. “Alyssa won’t have any trouble keeping up. As for you, I can carry you on my shoulder again if need be.”

It’s a vicious barb, and I send a scowl Morpheus’s way.

“Not necessary,” Dad says, unfazed. “You’ll lead us to Jeb. I have ways of convincing you.” He pats the sheathed dagger slung over his left arm.

“Agreed,” Morpheus snips. “It’s not as if I have a choice in the matter.” His retort is edged with frustration. It’s got to be more than Dad’s iron dagger persuading him. After all, he can take off and fly anytime he wants.

He turns on his heel and starts picking his way through the small floating islands, using the walking stick to bridge the moats like he did earlier. Dad and I follow.

Balancing on the bobbing ground makes the trek difficult until we learn where to step, and fall into a rhythm. Momentary bouts of activity dot the landscape: packs of fluffy rabbits bounding along in the distance that, upon closer inspection, have the same muzzles and sharp canines as wolves; crocodile-like creatures lifting their heads out of the moats—giant jaws yawning to reveal soft white teeth reminiscent of toothbrush bristles; and centipedes scrambling beneath thorny weeds to protect bodies covered with silvery velvet hides and legs studded with tiny green jewels.

Most of the animals and bugs ignore us, which I prefer. I can’t hear them or the flowers. But when my tunic catches on a plant with dangling fruits that look like leathery crimson teacups hung upside down, I consider touching it.

“I would not bother those, were I you,” Morpheus calls from in front of me, not even sparing a glance my way.

I jerk my hand back. “Is the fruit poisonous?”

“It’s not fruit,” Dad answers from behind. “Those are egg sacs for AnyElsewhere’s amphibious genus of bats.”

Bats that live on land and in water. Creepy.

I give the plants a wide berth so as not to disturb the teacup-shaped flower pods. The poem from Carroll’s story echoes in the back of my mind:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!

Up above the world you fly,

Like a tea tray in the sky.

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!

How I wonder what you’re at!

While trying to remember the rest of the words, I stumble into a large shrub. A confused medley of monarch butterflies stirs from the leaves. Their wings are paper-thin and metallic, like a mix between hammered copper and stained glass. I reach to capture one, but my netherling intuition stops my hand midair.

“What about the butterflies?” I ask.

“They’re indigenous to this place,” Morpheus answers from a few steps ahead, before Dad can. “And by that, you can expect them to be the opposite of what you’d expect. The crocodiles’ teeth are as gentle as a brushstroke, and their temperament the same. They’re rather like kittens in this world. But butterflies? One sting, and you’re turned to stone. Or, they might choose to slice an artery with a razor-sharp wing. The constant changes in scenery serve to keep the wildlife distracted. Ignore them, and they’ll show you the same courtesy.”

As the graceful butterflies ride away on a current of air, I notice a shiny, sharp needle protruding from each of their thoraxes, curved and poison-tipped like a scorpion’s stinger.

Things quiet down as the wildlife moves on to their usual routines. If you could call anything about teacup-eggs and metal-winged scorpions usual . . .

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