Ensnared Page 78


We savor his torment. Our heart beats in unified vindication. One pulse . . . one purpose. To give us our vengeance. To at last reap the rewards of the scheme that began so long ago with a curious little girl named Alice.

To the left of the stage, a troop of goons siphons in. Manti appears behind them with the captured human boy. The prisoner wears tuxedo pants and a vest. A black cloth bag covers his head. His hands are bound behind his back with chains wrapped around a large rock. Manti struggles with the rock’s weight, carrying it so the boy can walk.

The harlequin doppelganger brings up the rear, wearing a T-shirt and worn jeans. The line of red jewels sparkles on one side of its face. On the other, its heart-shaped eye patch is torn, and there’s movement in the black emptiness where the skin gapes. The back of an eyeball bobs to the surface, slimy with veins and optic nerve. It rolls around, then disappears into the hole.

The gruesome display tickles us and We laugh out loud, shrill and gleeful like a child with a new toy. Our cackle wakes the sleeping priest for all of two seconds before his bulbous eyes grow heavy and he’s snoring even louder.

Morpheus dips his head low and pulls us along by our hand. We drift beside him, proud, propelled by our vines.

The doppelganger climbs the stage and takes his place next to the queen. A breeze coaxes its hair away from an ear, revealing the pointed tip. Manti shoves the mortal to his knees on the stage’s edge, closest to the pool of fears, and drops the rock beside him with a loud thunk.

We skim up the stairs and observe the human captive with remorse. Not for his life, but for all the delicious sport he could’ve given us. He’s alluring, for a lesser being. We would’ve enjoyed using him up, too.

We take our spot in front of the priest, our groom to the left between us and the chained mortal; Hart is on the right, holding her box. Manti and the doppelganger stand on her other side.

We’re moments from victory. Moments from Wonderland, our crown, and our throne.

Morpheus lifts the bag from the mortal boy’s head and steps back, cursing.

A strip of cloth cinches across the human’s eyes and another across his mouth. His olive complexion is flawless, aside from fine lines of blood drizzling down his cheeks, bridging the blindfold to the gag. Another line of red runs down his chin.

“Why is he bound like this . . . and bleeding?” Morpheus demands.

“My question precisely!” Hart grouses from her place between us and Manti. “I want to see the fear in his eyes and hear his screams as we retrieve his life-clock.”

“I had no choice, O Majestic One,” Manti answers his queen. “I confiscated his paints, but he improvised. He painted in his cell with mud made of dirt and saliva, hid everything he made in the shadows. Forgeries of the walls and prison bars came alive and turned against us as we tried to bring him here. We lost a dozen of your devoted guards to violent deaths at the hands of his creations. The only way to stop his magic was by gouging out his eyes so he could no longer see to bring new things into being . . . and cutting out his tongue so he could no longer speak to command them.”

Morpheus pales, as if even he can’t stomach what’s become of the mortal.

Something twists in the core of our being, a pricking pain, rousing an unexpected and unwelcome voice . . .

Jebediah Holt, it sobs.

Our heart skips a beat, then falls back into rhythm. We won’t be swayed by a name. We stand taller beside our groom, blotting out everything except the impending triumph flowing through our veins—a high unlike any other.

But there’s more . . . The broken voice won’t relent. There’s more to him than a name . . . more to them both.

No. We refuse to listen. They are stepping-stones. And soon, all of Wonderland will be pebbles beneath our feet. We will rule over both kingdoms and everyone will worship us.

“You fools!” Morpheus shouts, reminding us where We are, what’s at stake. “I could’ve convinced the mortal to release Alyssa of the vow. I could’ve—” His voice cracks.

“Ha.” Hart snorts. “Well, he can no longer do that, can he? He’s forever lost the ability to speak. Only one way to release it now.”

In an explosive flurry of wings and rage, Morpheus lunges at Manti, catching the manticorn by his horn and dragging him to his knees. He holds a knife at the base of Manti’s horn. “Stay back,” he yells to the guards.

Hart yelps and the audience leaps up and cheers, some climbing into their seats for a better view, the anticipation of bloodshed working them to a frenzy.

Since Morpheus has the upper hand on stage, the guards and goons descend the stairs in an effort to contain the crowd.

Through it all, the priest sleeps beneath the humming lightning-bug cloud.

“You betrayed me,” Morpheus seethes next to Manti’s humanoid ear. “I gave you his whereabouts with the condition he would not be harmed.”

Manti struggles, but his horn is his Achilles’ heel, the source of both his strength and weakness. He’s at Morpheus’s mercy. “I had to prove my loyalty to my queen. To make up for the human knights who escaped the dungeon under my watch.”

“Savage!” Morpheus growls and forces the manticorn to stand. The doppelganger rushes forward, breaking them up.

Morpheus loses the knife and Hart grabs it as Manti moves back into place between her and the doppelganger.

“Enough delays,” Hart threatens, giving Manti the knife. “The wedding goes on as planned, Morpheus. Try anything else like that, and you’ll be swimming with the eels before the day is out.”

We wrap our vines around Morpheus’s arm and pull him toward us as Manti and Hart turn to the audience, calling out commands to silence them.

Morpheus studies the mutilated mortal. Profound misery darkens his features. He peels our tendrils away, curses under his breath, and throws down his hat.

The little sprite and Chessie flitter out, carrying a miniature hookah. We watch them, suspicious.

As if spurred by the activity, the human prisoner contracts his muscles in a futile effort to break free of his chains. He makes a guttural choking sound—animalistic and gut-wrenching without his tongue.

His agony fascinates us, demands our attention. That sense of knowing twists inside, sharper this time, like a knife. The unwelcome voice revisits:

This isn’t the first time he’s bled for you, it prods. And he has painted with more than mud. How could you forget the room of starlight and snow, ribbons, wishes, and dreams? How could you forget all he’s sacrificed for you?

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