Ensnared Page 84

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Bright orbs of blue light—strong and unfaltering—burst along Morpheus’s fingertips. The glow reflects off his face. He smirks like an enchanted schoolboy. “Yes.”

Chessie flutters around him in celebratory spins.

Dad nods and takes an iron dagger from the sheath at his shoulder. “All right. Jeb and I are going to see if this trail is safe. We’ll be back.”

Jeb squeezes my hand before he follows. I hold on to him, surprised to see his tattoo still glowing, though instead of violet, it’s pure red. He lifts his eyebrows in a bewildered gesture before rolling down his sleeve, an unspoken request for us to solve the mystery later. He and Dad duck under a mass of low-hanging tulgey branches and vanish from sight.

Chessie’s eyes whirl, telling me and Morpheus how much he’s missed his home and wants to revisit his favorite haunts.

“First, find Alyssa’s mum and Ivory,” Morpheus insists. “Let them know we’re here. If the mirror passages are working, have them open one for us.”

Chessie agrees, then weaves through some closely knit trees, gone before I can blink.

Morpheus lifts his hands, testing his power. Blue electric filaments reach to every branch in the canopy overhead, shaking white billows loose. He stands there—wings arced high—proud and regal as a fluffy downpour showers over him. A hearty laugh rumbles deep in his chest. He’s carefree and playful, even more than when he was in his room in AnyElsewhere. He’s been without magic for so long, he’s drunk on it.

The snow flurries over me, too, cold and refreshing. It reminds me of Texas and the seasonal snowfalls Jeb, Jenara, and I played in as kids. Snowmen, snow ice cream, snow forts. I can’t help but laugh with him, in spite of how weak I feel.

“Dance with me, blossom,” he coaxes, and when I hesitate, he reels me in with his magic. I snuggle into his chest and let myself savor his vitality, wishing I could absorb it.

He wraps an arm around my waist and clasps my hand with his. Lips pressed to my dreadlocked head, he hums the lullaby’s tune while his inner voice fills my head on a frequency only I can hear: “ You dazzled me today. So uninhibited. So filled with malice.”

I smile secretly and follow his graceful steps. His wings cascade around us like swirls of ethereal ink.

“In fact,” his mind-speak continues, “now that I have my magic back”—he spins me out, then pulls me against him again—“I expect you to give me another crack at our game.”

“Game?” I ask.

“I am not averse to roughing it up,” he answers, no longer humming. He takes my hand, nips at the knuckles with taunting teeth, then guides my fingers to the red marks on his neck. “Wrathful queen and wayward footman . . . that will be standard fare for our love-play. Sans Red’s vines, and we’ll both be scantily clad.”

I snort. “You’re delirious.”

“I prefer the term ‘mad.’”

I smile up at him, thrilled to see him teasing and content. I press my ear to his chest so I can hear his strong heartbeat. I try to make my dual heart merge to one beat and follow its perfect rhythm. I fail.

“Alyssa, I am whole again,” he murmurs as our dance slows to a gentle rocking motion.

“I know.”

“Jebediah is whole, too.”

I don’t answer, because somehow Jeb still harbors Red’s magic and I’m not sure what to make of it.

“So, you must convince him to release you of your vow,” Morpheus adds, resolute.

I start to pull back, but he hugs me tighter.

“You love me. You admitted it.”

“I do love you.”

His body trembles in response, as if he can’t contain his emotions at my confession. “We both know you made the vow to get your mortal knight out of AnyElsewhere. To give him faith in his humanness and you. Your stratagem saved his life.”

I grind my teeth. “That’s not the only reason I made it.” It’s important that he accepts my love for Jeb. I’ll have to tell Jeb the same thing about Morpheus before I’m gone. I will not leave them with lies hanging between us. “I love you both.”

Morpheus tenses and waltzes me around the small space again, retracing our dance steps through the snow until our footprints erase themselves. We twirl from one end to the other, as if he thinks he can distract me from my own truth.

At last, we come to a panting stop, face-to-face. All of his earlier playfulness snuffs out like a candle as our breaths form clouds of condensation between us. “I’m done waiting. It is now or never. And dare not forget, our union will ensure what happened to your father never happens to another human. No one else will be trapped by Sister Two, because we will gift Wonderland with our dream-child.”

His words punch me with a realization that hasn’t yet crossed my mind. Since I’m dying, our son will never be born. Wonderland will have to continue to steal children for their dreams forever. Unless we can find an alternative.

There’s a harsh snap behind my sternum and a bitter, metallic flavor coats my throat.

I press my face into his chest, stifling a sob. “I thought we were dancing.”

In response, he spins me. I break free and come to a stop in front of a tree trunk. Its expression is locked in an openmouthed morose frown, just like the tree we stepped out of. I stand back and survey all the tulgeys within sight. Every single one has the same expression, as if it was miserable the moment the ice swept over it.

The heart of Wonderland is suffering. The doldrums are closing in. Come soon. We’ll hold them off as long as we can.

“Doldrums,” I murmur.

“What did you say?” Morpheus asks, coming up behind me.

“Doldrums. That’s the word Mom used when she said to hurry. She told me the doldrums were closing in.”

I look over my shoulder for his reaction. His jaw is clenched, his beautiful face crestfallen. He appraises the trees and the looking-glass rejects. “I thought Red merely cast a spell. But it was a plague . . . an extermination. Toxic gloom.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Doldrums are microscopic creatures. Their destruction is so devastating and complete, they’ve been in containment for centuries. Each of the castles has a supply of them under lock and key, as a means to keep the peace. To keep both kingdoms in check.”

I nod. “Mutual Assured Destruction . . . both sides know that any attack on the other will be devastating to themselves. We have the same thing for nuclear weapons in our world.”

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