Ensnared Page 54

Morpheus steps between us. “Patience, luv. Our elfin knight finally realizes he’s not the god he thought he was.”

My brain clutters with little-girl fears. “Daddy.” I lean over him, sniffling. “Daddy, look at me.”

His eyes flutter, but don’t open.

“We followed the glow, landed close to the abyss of nothing,” Jeb mumbles, his voice quavering and husky from his earlier outburst. “The knights at the Wonderland gate could see us. They used their medallion and sent a wind tunnel. We were waiting to be picked up . . . but we were attacked. The queen’s guards shook up a cage filled with scorpion flies and released a swarm. I tried to get out my sketchpad, to draw nets to capture them . . . like the ones I make for you.” He shoots a glance to Morpheus.

“Your magic failed,” Morpheus suggests.

“I failed,” Jeb says, eyes on Dad again. “The sound got into my head. Louder than a million locusts trapped inside a concert hall.”

Dad wails, rocking his head back and forth, trying to cover his ears. “Make it stop!”

“What’s he talking about?” I ask.

“He’s been saying that since he was stung,” Jeb answers. “It’s like he still hears them buzzing.”

“He was stung?” Is it me who asks the question? I’m not sure. Everyone’s voices are distant, and my body feels compressed, like I’m swimming through sludge at the bottom of the ocean.

“CC was able to kill most of them, and I came out of it enough to capture the others . . . but a couple got loose. I’m sorry, Al.” Jeb still won’t look at me.

Morpheus strips off his jacket, drags a sloshing bucket from beneath the table, and fills a sponge. “Where did they sting him?”

“His left leg, I think,” Jeb mutters.

“No. It isn’t true.” I push between them, gripping one of Morpheus’s biceps. “You said those things turn people to stone. He’s not stone, see?”

He peels my hand away. “We need to get him out of this costume, to assure he’s only been stung in one place.”

“This can’t be happening!” I shout.

Morpheus forces me to face him. “If he was stung only on his leg, it buys us time since it’s farther from his heart. Now get something to keep him warm. He’s about to be very wet.”

Chessie lights on my shoulder, patting my neck in a comforting gesture. Nikki takes me by my pinky and leads me to a peg where a drop cloth hangs. I lift it off. I’m no longer underwater. I’m flittering somewhere far away, tethered by a bungee cord that keeps snapping me back to something I don’t want to be a part of. Filmy twilight seeps through the glass ceiling, magnifying my disorientation.

I hand off the cloth to Jeb. “This can’t be happening. It can’t.”

Neither guy answers. They cover Dad to his shoulders, then use sopping sponges to melt off his costume underneath.

Strange, stupid conjecturing fills my head. The drop cloth isn’t melting. And what about the table? Won’t the water destroy it, and Dad fall crashing through? Maybe it’s not a painting; maybe it’s like the honeycomb-flowers, bat hide, rabbit meat, and rainwater. Something derived from the raw resources in this place.

All questions fade as I see the serious expressions on Jeb and Morpheus’s faces.

I move to the front end of the table and nuzzle the top of Dad’s hair, my fingers curled around his ears. “You’re going to be okay, Dad. Mom needs you to be okay. We both need you.” The scents of maple syrup, laundry detergent, and lemon cleaner surround me. It makes no sense he’d smell that way. My brain must be playing tricks because he’s always been home, safety, and comfort to me.

Dad pummels the back of his head against the table, his face screwed up in pain.

I shove my hands under the nape of his neck to protect his skull from the hard wood. “Do something!” I shout.

Jeb finally looks my way. “Al, we’re trying.”

For the first time, I get a glimpse at his face. He looks just like the little boy in the pictures at his house. Lost, tortured, haunted. The only difference is the blood on his cheek and the labret glistening beneath his lip.

I’m about to ask him if he’s hurt, too, when I catch sight of my dad’s ankle sticking out from the edge of the cloth. His skin is white, dry, and powdery like cement. The hair has fallen off. A thousand minuscule lights glint off his skin, like a sidewalk under an evening sky.

He is turning to stone.

My windpipe nearly closes. “Use your magic!” My voice sounds like a boiling teapot—airy and whistling. “The paintbrush. Heal him like you did Morpheus’s ear.” I grab Jeb’s arm. “Please.”

He and Morpheus exchange guarded glances.

“It only works on Morpheus because we share magic,” Jeb answers, his expression filled with so much regret it reaches beyond his enchanted state, making him appear raw and human. “Wait.” He furrows his brow. “Your dream-magic. Thomas is a human. He can slip into dreams.”

Morpheus nods, catching on where I’m oblivious. “The poison spreads through the bloodstream, spurred by the victim’s agitation. If we can subdue him to a REM state—send his mind where he cannot hear the buzzing—we can calm him. Hold the venom at bay.”

“The Queen of Hearts,” Jeb takes up again. “She has a remedy for this. Otherwise, her idiot guards wouldn’t be handling the insects.”

I look back and forth between them. “Yes. Do it. Please . . .” I don’t notice that my face is wet until Chessie blots my cheeks with his tail.

Jeb starts to touch Dad’s head, but Morpheus stops him. “You don’t know how to harness dream-magic. You need guidance.”

I tighten my jaw, suspecting the real reason for Morpheus’s intervention. If he were to let Jeb unleash his full power, Red’s strain would also seep into my dad. And who knows what the result would be?

Jeb shrugs and I stand back, completely useless in spite of all my magic.

Morpheus cups his bared palms around Dad’s temples and Jeb nudges aside a wing to stand shoulder to shoulder beside him, his hands pressed to Morpheus’s. Though Jeb’s tattoo glows purple, the light that they radiate is pristine blue—strictly Morpheus’s—as if they’ve practiced bypassing Red’s magic many times before. Morpheus looks at Jeb incredulously, seemingly surprised by the purity of the force.

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