Ensnared Page 20

Dad lets go of my hand. For an instant I’m floating, then I drift into place atop a carousel horse moving in sync with the Gravitron on the other side.

A warm, humid stench surrounds us like a stagnant swamp. Dad wasn’t exaggerating when he said everything was barren here. The only lights come from the carousel. Up close, they’re actually bioluminescent bugs in small glass globes. A fuzzy gray firmament shimmers overhead—a haze of nothing.

Black mist cloaks our surroundings, so thick I can’t make out the ground beyond the ride’s platform. There’s no sound anywhere; even the gears of the carousel trundle along in silence.

Dad and Uncle Bernie fall onto their mounts in front of me. Dad’s cousin Phillip, dressed in a Red knight’s uniform, is already seated on a bench next to Uncle Bernie’s horse. I grab the brass rod that holds my mount secure. Tiny triangular mirrors cover the center pole. Through them I can see the inside of the Gravitron. That’s where we came out and where the knights must somehow go back in. It looks physically impossible, considering our size in contrast to the narrow bits of shimmering glass.

The adrenaline pumping inside me starts to slow as the ride comes to a stop. Dad takes the duffel from Uncle Bernie and helps me down. My legs waver as if trying to remember how to walk.

Together, the four of us step away from the light and into the nothing. My boots glide as if on air. I’d half expected to feel a sludgy mud sticking to my soles. The strange fog bubbles up around our knees, then falls to our ankles like a boiling, steamy stew, although nothing is wet. The mist has a sound-absorbing quality, eating up every whisper, breath, or shuffle of clothing and feet.

A glowing white gate looms in the distance. The iron dome rises behind it, dark and threatening, like a gargantuan, overturned witch’s cauldron.

I pause. The plan my uncle and his cousin came up with—to distract the gate’s eye as Dad and I creep through—is too dangerous. With the simulacrum suits, we’re all assured safe passage. But we need to get them on before we’re close enough for the gate to spot the four of us.

I tug at the duffel bag on Dad’s shoulder, making him stop.

“I have to show you something,” I attempt to say, but the sound is sucked away before it even leaves my tongue. Uncle Bernie said communication would be tricky here. I had no idea that meant our words would actually be swallowed by emptiness.

I take the duffel bag and pull on one pair of simulacrum coveralls over my clothes. The transparent fabric hangs off my shoulders and waist. I pull the pant legs’ extra length over my feet and tie it in place to cover my boots.

Next, I concentrate on my settings and hold out my arms. The fabric shrinks, fitting my other clothes perfectly. As I keep my thoughts on my surroundings, the background begins to move through me. Only my bare hands can be seen, sticking out from the enchanted cuffs. The rest of my body appears to be gone. By pulling the sleeve cuffs over my fingers, I become nothing but a floating head.

Phillip and Uncle Bernie nod.

Within minutes, Dad has his invisibility gear on. Since he can’t speak, he can’t question where I got the camo or yell at me for how I went about it. He tucks the duffel under his arm inside the coveralls, so it’s hidden from view. The hoods drape our faces so we can see through the fabric, but not be seen.

Our escorts start toward the gate. We follow, spaced far enough apart that we won’t accidentally bump elbows or trip over each other’s boots. As we get closer, what I thought were bars become scaly tentacles, white and writhing like albino snakes. An unexpected emotion overwhelms me. Not fear. Not trepidation.

It’s an all-encompassing sense of loneliness as vast as the nothing around us.

Somewhere inside that gate are my two knights—the dark and the light. Morpheus has to be disappointed in me, for my colossal failure in destroying the entrances and exits to his beloved Wonderland. Then there’s Jeb, who believes I threw away the most pure and devoted love I’ve ever known.

All these weeks I’ve been concerned for their physical well-being. But what about their emotional states? Jeb thinks I betrayed him. And Morpheus will thrive on feeding that misconception every chance he gets.

Maybe it’s not the murderous prisoners or strange wildlife I should be worried about. It would be laughable to think that Morpheus took Jeb under his wings and helped him. All I can hope for is that by some miracle they parted ways without killing one another.

Again, my heart tugs in two directions—a literal, physical sensation that burns. I grit my teeth under my invisible veil, forcing myself to stay in step with our escorts.

We approach the gate. It stands over three stories high. Uncle Bernie strokes the serpentine bars. Even a nest of anacondas couldn’t compete with their size. The scales pucker and release, muscles rippling underneath. There’s no question how this gate kills its prey. One squeeze would crush anyone who violates the entrance.

These bars could obliterate armies. They probably have.

The image is so gruesome, I whimper—grateful for the sound-absorbing mist. In the gate’s center, one snaky appendage pulls free of the others. A white, oblong protrusion resembling a Venus flytrap drops down in front of my uncle and Phillip. It’s half the size of a human. As it opens, the jagged edges form eyelashes and a lone eyeball peers from inside, silver with a slitted black pupil, like a snake’s eye. I suppress a shudder.

The lashes blink, slow and studious.

Uncle Bernie and Phillip stand their ground in front of us. The leafy creature hovers across them from head to toe. It lifts high enough to look over their shoulders and I hold my breath, afraid it will somehow sense me or Dad.

It squints before snapping closed and weaving back into the other tentacles. The snaky bars wind together on either side—like curtains being drawn. We step through as a united front, my hair bristling as I jab my elbow into my side to keep from brushing the scales.

I don’t suck in a breath until the gate slithers into place behind us.

Dad and I draw back our hoods and share a sigh of relief. His brother and cousin pat my shoulder before stepping up to the top of the stone platform on either side of the threshold next to the knights they’ll be relieving. A twister of ash and wind sweeps down in the distance, similar to the white tornadoes I’ve seen on weather shows.

There’s more of the misty nothingness between the platform where we stand and AnyElsewhere’s landscape. The vapor glows green, as if radioactive. According to Uncle Bernie’s earlier rundown, instead of absorbing sound, it sucks up everything that attempts to cross it.

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