Ensnared Page 32

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My limbs go numb and Dad’s dagger almost slips from my sweaty hand.

Dad! How could I have forgotten him?

A shuffling sound echoes from the darkness further down the corridor. Holding my breath, I tiptoe along the winding hallway. I haven’t made it very far when something clenches my arm from behind. One hand slaps across my mouth and another shoves me against the wall, hard enough my spine grinds into the stone.

My captor’s build is masculine. He grips my wrists with his free hand and holds them at my abdomen. My fingers tighten around Dad’s dagger, the blade pointed toward the ground.

I try to yell, but my attacker’s free hand seals my lips tight. He’s taller than me, head tilted like a curious puppy, as if trying to figure me out. There’s something so familiar about his height and form. When my eyes adjust to the dimness, I almost collapse.

It’s Jeb, from his labret to that body I know so well . . . only now I can see his face.

On the right side, red jeweled dots sparkle in a curved line from his temple to his cheekbone, matching his red labret. A closer look at his ears reveals pointed tips. He resembles an elfin knight of Ivory’s court, if not for his unshaved jaw. Even his eyes, vacant and distant, lack emotion.

A scream struggles to break loose as more gruesome details come to light. The skin under his left eye gapes open. Where there should be tissue and bones showing through, there’s nothing but a void.

My tongue dries, smothered under his palm.

“He’s not the same boy you once knew,” Morpheus warned. This is what he meant. Jeb is mutated, because of me.

I strangle on a sob.

Movement catches my attention in the emptiness where his skin gapes. An eyeball bobs to the surface, veined and backward. I gag, trying to shove him off. He’s too strong and holds me pinned by my own hands.

He bends his face closer. A set of fingers curls from inside the gaping skin above his cheekbone—a hand trying to reach out and touch me. The fingers are shiny and deep red, the color of blood. The detached eyeball rolls to look at the fingertips while Jeb’s other two eyes continue to study me.

I gasp for breath under the unrelenting palm over my mouth. Heat scalds my chest—as electric as a lightning flash—and the diary under my tunic glows once more. It shocks my sense of self-preservation to life. I bare my teeth and bite his fingers, hard enough to break the skin.

With a feral screech, Jeb releases me. I spit out his blood, faintly aware that it tastes like paint.

I fumble for the slippery dagger in my sweaty fingers and catch it at the last minute, accidentally slicing through his jeans and thigh. He howls—a harrowing, animalistic sound—as the skin on his leg peels back in a six-inch gash.

“I’m sorry!” I cry. “I’m sorry for everything!”

Detached eyes and red disembodied hands spill from the opening, riding on slithering crimson vines with mouths that snap like Venus flytraps.

I drop the dagger. Back pressed to the wall, I slide down to the floor. My screams join his agonized wails. The slimy vines trail around me and I kick at them. Bile gushes into my throat as several constrict my ankle.

The door down the hall flings open. Morpheus rushes out with Nikki and Chessie flying behind.

Salty tears stream down my face—coating my lips as I mutter senseless apologies for so many things. So many irreversible things.

Morpheus peels the vines off and lifts me, cradling me to his chest.

“Get that bloody beast out of here!” he shouts over his shoulder. I look across through blurred eyes to see who he’s talking to.

It’s Jeb. My Jeb. The one who was speaking with Morpheus minutes ago. And the only thing marring his perfect face are spatters of paint.

The other Jeb, the one that attacked me, is crumpled on the floor, wailing—a macabre doppelganger of the human boy I know and trust.

“Why is it wandering around unattended?” Morpheus continues to scold. “I told you . . . you should never have granted it such freedoms.”

Jeb’s gaze passes over me, his green eyes far from the emotionless stare of an elfin knight. They’re rife with shock, bitterness, and agony.

Shivers race from my head to my toes. I need to tell him that I’ve come to save him. That I still love him. That I’m sorry for everything. But my vocal cords stiffen, as if iced over.

My head feels like ice, too. Heavy and deadened. I’m not even sure I’m awake anymore. Maybe this has all been a nightmare. I hold on to the nape of Morpheus’s neck, burying my face in his jacket. Nikki and Chessie burrow into my hair. I inhale Morpheus’s scent. It’s the only thing I recognize, the only thing that’s safe.

He carries me back to the well-lit room and sets me gently on the table. I can’t stop trembling. My throat aches from holding back sobs.

“Calm down, Alyssa.” Morpheus wraps a heavy canvas drop cloth around my shoulders.

Chessie clambers from my shoulder into my lap, his wide emerald eyes asking if I’m okay. Nikki buzzes around my face, patting my temple with her ladybug-size palm—maternal and kind.

My blood flashes hot and cold.

“You look pallid,” Morpheus says, gathering the drop cloth tighter around me. “Are you going to need a bucket?”

I shake my head, fighting off the queasy roil in my gut. “W-w-where’s Jeb? What was that thing—” Shuddering coughs shake my body.

“Shh.” Morpheus places his hands at either side of my hips on the table. His wings enfold us. “Jebediah’s putting it away. He’ll be back shortly. Breathe deeply and concentrate on me. You are safe.”

I take a shallow breath, but it chokes me.

“Look at me,” Morpheus presses. I focus on his complexion, the color of snowy shadows beneath the eclipse of his wings, and he begins to sing. Not inside my mind, since the iron dome prevents it, but aloud . . . a simple, sweet lullaby, carried on his beautiful voice.

“Little blossom so filled with dread, clear the nightmares from your head. Let me wipe away your tears, for in this place you have no fears.”

He used to sing those very lyrics when he became a child and took me to Wonderland in my dreams. I would pull one of his satiny wings across me like a blanket, and the scent of licorice and honey, paired with his beautiful lullaby, would lull me to relaxation. As I listen now, his jewels flash a serene blue, like the surface of an ocean.

With a few deep breaths, I suppress the coughing. “Thank you,” I say.

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